By ANDY WOLF
The University of Findlay and Ferris State is quietly becoming one of the most thrilling men’s basketball rivalries in Division II.
The next chapter is here.
The stage is only getting bigger.
They’ll meet in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament at 7 p.m. today at FSU’s Jim Wink Arena in Big Rapids, Michigan.
Findlay (28-4) punched its ticket to the Midwest Regional final Sunday against Bellarmine (74-73).
“Findlay-Bellarmine has had some classic games over the last five years,” UF coach Charlie Ernst said. “If there’s one team that maybe could exceed the quality of games and finishes and talented players, it would be the Findlay-Ferris State rivalry.”
The Oilers were guaranteed a chance at redemption for whoever won the second semifinal between Ferris State and Lake Superior State. The Bulldogs (34-1) made quick work of the Lakers, 94-71.
The two schools delivered Findlay its first two losses on the season in an eight-day span back in November.
UF was without starting point guard Austin Gardner in both games.
They still lost 69-68 on the road to the Bulldogs as UF’s Martyce Kimbrough missed the front end a one-and-one, allowing Noah King to hit the game-winning layup at the other end with one second left.
“We’ve known all year that this would be a possibility,” Ernst said of the rematch. “If we kept playing well, this was a team that we would see in the NCAA tournament. In terms of what we can learn, we learned a few things. Obviously they’ve changed quite a bit since then and so have we.”
The history between them extends further back.
They fnished 1-2 in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference last season before Findlay left for the Great Midwest Athletic Conference.
The Oilers bested them in the 2016-17 regular season (81-77 OT) before ending their season in the regional semifinal (68-63).
It was a poetic redemption as the Bulldogs topped them in the previous year (72-69) and ended their season in the GLIAC semis (62-61) at Croy Gymnasium.
Both starting fives are loaded with upperclassmen and personnel both coaches are familiar with.
Five of the 10 projected players on the court for the opening tip are 1,000-point scorers.
Ferris State’s trio of Zach Hankins (15.1 ppg ), Drew Cushingberry (13.6 ppg) and Noah King (12.4 ppg) accomplished the feat this season.
Few players in the country are like Hankins.
The 6-foot-10 junior hauls in 9.7 rebounds per game and has swatted a Division II-best 118 shots.
Ernst cited Hankins as one of the best game-changing defensive players that he’s seen since Grand Valley State University’s Callistus Eziukwu (6-10), who had 329 blocks from 2004-08.
“They list (Hankins) at 6-10 but I’m not so sure he’s not taller than that,” Ernst said with a chuckle.
Cushingberry (6-3) and King (6-4), both seniors, help set the tone for the quick, lengthy Bulldogs who rely on transition and points in the paint.
“That’s the challenge for when you play them is how much help do you give inside?” Ernst said, anticipating in-game adjustments.
UF seniors Martyce Kimbrough and Taren Sullivan both hit the 1,000-point milestone last season.
Kimbrough (18.1 ppg) needs 14 points to move into 10th on UF’s all-time scoring list.
Sullivan (17.3 ppg), coming of 26- and 22-point scoring efforts in the tournament, is 11 points away from moving into 12th.
Senior guard Elijah Kahlig (9.3 ppg) is 17 points away from becoming the 31st member of the 1,000-point club. He’s had five games of at least 17 points this season.
Meanwhile, fellow starters Gardner and Alex White are enjoying their first taste of NCAA tournament action.
Both were sidelined by game No. 11 last season due to knee injuries and turned “cheerleaders” for last year’s Sweet 16 run.
Gardner (4.7 ppg) especially has picked up his scoring with efficiency.
He’s shooting 59 percent and averaging 6.7 points in his last nine games — including 6 of 13 from 3-point range.
White (9.5 ppg) has 27 points in the two tournament games.
“I’m just happy those guys came back from injuries, persevered and came back to be apart of a special season this year,” Ernst said. “…That experience that they both had last year helps us this year.”
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By ANDY WOLF