By ANDY WOLF
University of Findlay men’s basketball coach Charlie Ernst has always talked about Ohio Dominican as a sleeping giant.
And while ODU’s tradition is nowhere near what UF’s is, Ernst agrees the Oilers are going through a “budding rivalry” with the Panthers.
Part of that goes back to last spring when the Panthers made their first Division II NCAA tournament appearance after winning the Great Midwest Athletic Conference tournament as a No. 4 seed.
Along the way, they upset the top-seeded Oilers at home on a breakaway steal and finish at the buzzer in the GMAC semifinals.
It marked ODU’s first Division II win at Croy Gymnasium in eight prior chances.
“Probably (UF head football coach) Rob Keys would agree with me that 10-12 years ago they had good programs but not great,” Ernst said. “But with the fact that Columbus is such a popular destination for kids, and the talent pool, you add those two things together, a commitment from their administration to make those sports successful, certainly they’ve improved their program quite a bit in the last two years.”
Findlay (12-2, 6-1 GMAC), up from No. 23 to No. 17 in the national polls, has a half-game lead on Ohio Dominican (9-4, 5-1) so far.
The winner of today’s 7:30 p.m. contest at Croy Gymnasium will be the last one-loss team left in GMAC play.
The Panthers never contended for a league title as members of the GLIAC from the 2010-11 to 2016-17 seasons.
But they have made great strides to becoming not just a quality team, but a force in the league race.
Sixth-year head coach Dan Evans inherited a 5-23 team upon getting hired in May of 2013.
After a 5-21 campaign in 2013-14, he’s upped the win total every year since to a peak at 20-11 last season –their second-straight winning season.
“Now when you watch them on video, you see a team that doesn’t hurt themselves,” Ernst said.
ODU has two seniors on its roster but is led in scoring by a pair of juniors in Sam Hickey (17.9) and Hasan Varence (15.0).
Varence (6-foot-6) also controls the paint for a league-best 12.3 rebounds per game.
Hickey, a 6-3 guard from Toledo Whitmer, does most of his damage from 3-point range. A career 42 percent shooter from downtown, his 3.2 3-pointers per game leads the GMAC.
“He knows that people are running at him so he’s using his dribble wisely,” Ernst said. “He’s a much better defender. “¦ When he was a freshman he ebbed and flowed whether they had the right matchup for him unless he was just unconscious (shooting).”
Sophomore guard Tahj Curry (11.3 ppg) and senior guard Ryan Hoyng (10.7) also average in double figures.
Ernst cited the length and versatility of ODU’s guards in Hickey, Hoyng (6-3), Curry (6-3), Michael Scott (6-3) and Arius Jones (6-4) as a key factor on the defensive end.
For Findlay, sophomore point guard Tommy Schmock earned a quick reputation for his pesky and aggressive on-ball defense last season.
Paired with senior Trey Smith off the bench, the two formed a weapon that dramatically changed the tone of the game.
Now, both are starters and must play a more reserved approach to avoid foul trouble.
The taste of last year’s home loss to ODU still resides with Schmock a little.
“It’s on all of our minds. We thought for sure we were getting a ring,” Schmock said. “… This year, different mindset, being able to take care of business. This game isn’t bigger than the next one.”
Schmock recorded 52 steals in just 17.9 minutes per game last season to rank second in the GMAC.
While his per-game numbers are down to 1.2 steals per game, his court time is way up to 31.5 minutes per game.
Ernst has also seen Schmock take on the naturally demanding leadership roles of being a point guard.
Schmock is tied for the GMAC lead at 6.0 assists per game, having led UF last season with 111.
“I think I’ve done a good job getting us all under control,” he said. “The two games we lost I probably should’ve been able to stop runs and get us together, but being able to build of that, not when we’re going good but when we’re doing bad.”
When he’s attacking the lane to create, UF’s other starters all average double figures.
Six-foot-seven forwards Alex White (18.3 ppg) and Aaron Overhiser (14.9 ppg) are a lethal tandem inside while Smith (12.7 ppg) and Anthony Masterlasco (10.5 ppg) are each shooting 45.5 percent from 3-point range.
“Being able to be under control on my drives, teams aren’t going to help off as much,” Schmock said. “I need to be able to show I can score by finishing, but if they do come, dump off, kick and facilitate.”
Findlay’s women’s basketball team is off to a similarly strong start as the men and will host Ohio Dominican (7-6, 4-3) at 5:30 p.m. today.
The Oilers (10-3, 6-2 GMAC) have won seven of eight and are doing so with dynamite defense. In that span, opponents are averaging 56.6 points per game and no team has scored more than 65 points.
Senior forward Anna Hintz still leads UF in scoring (18.8 ppg) and rebounding (8.8 rpg). lately, the Oilers have not been as reliant on her scoring ability as she’s topped 14 points once in the last five games.
Elissa Ellerbrock (Ottawa-Glandorf, 10.2 ppp) is coming off a career-high 20 points against Alderson Broaddus.
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