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Reinhardt top games No. 1: Illinois Wesleyan basketball wins it all in Salem

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The 1996-97 Illinois Wesleyan basketball team carried the motivation of a heartbreaking national semifinal loss from the previous season, while also spurred on by a widely held belief that the Titans had lost too much talent from that team to earn their way back to Salem, Va., for the Division III Final Four.

The Titans were a splendid combination of a superstar player in senior Bryan Crabtree, a precocious freshman point guard in Korey Coon (who would leave IWU as one of the top backcourt players in school history) and a slew of blue-collar contributors who knew what they needed to do to help their team win.

Despite its Final Four experience, IWU trailed 14-0 in the semifinals to Alvernia. The Titans gutted out an 85-82 victory to set up a shot at the national championship.

Wesleyan could do no wrong early, but Nebraska Wesleyan rallied from a huge deficit to apply a huge scare to the Titans. The prospect of blowing a 20-plus point lead on Division III’s biggest stage loomed large over IWU before the Titans came through in the biggest game of their lives.

It was more than 23 years ago, but the seared-into-my-mind memory of that evening makes it by No. 1 favorite game to cover during my Pantagraph career.

These are the words typed into my laptop that night:

Fate apparently did not want the Illinois Wesleyan basketball team to prevail on Saturday.

Fate left the Salem Civic Center disappointed. Wesleyan left the Division III national champions.

The short-handed but courageous Titans watched a 21-point second-half lead shrink to a precarious one before applying a vise grip to its slipping advantage and capturing a spine-tingling 89-86 victory over Nebraska Wesleyan.

IWU’s rich basketball tradition passionately embraced the only goal it had yet to attain — a national championship.

“I’m overwhelmed, really,” said Titans’ coach Dennie Bridges after the crowning achievement of a 32-year coaching career. “When it came down to sucking it up, we found a way to win — again.”

IWU, which set a school record for victories while finishing at 29-2, played the final 1:55 without three of its top five inside players.

Starting center Andy Boyden did not play in the Final Four because of mononucleosis, Matt Hoder left with 14:24 remaining because of an ankle injury and was unable to return and John Baines fouled out at the 1:55 mark.

“This team never gives up. We deal with adversity very well,” said Titans’ senior Bryan Crabtree, wearing the championship net around his neck as a personal trophy. "We played our hearts out. We played with heart and desire.”

Crabtree led all scorers with 28 points and was named the Final Four’s Most Valuable Player.

Nebraska Wesleyan (25-6) unleashed an unholy barrage of 13 second-half 3-pointers that transformed what was once a 23-point IWU bulge into fingernail-biting thriller.

Mitch Mosser scored all 23 of his points in the second half for the Plainsmen, 21 coming on 7-of-9 3-point marksmanship.

Two Mosser free throws brought Nebraska Wesleyan within 70-69 with 6:43 remaining.

After IWU’s Brent Niebrugge, probably the title game’s MVP with 25 points and 11 rebounds, scored on an inbounds pass, the Plainsmen had two 3-point opportunities that would have forged a tie. Both misfired.

“This team hasn’t quit all year. We didn’t expect them to quit,” Nebraska Wesleyan coach Todd Raridon said. “When they got the lead back to six, we never recovered after that.”

The IWU lead became six on a titantic Nathan Hubbard 3-pointer from the corner at the 3:37 mark.

The Titans led 81-73 after a Niebrugge basket, but the Plainsmen weren’t done. A Kipp Kissinger 3-pointer with 30 seconds left chopped the Nebraska Wesleyan deficit to 86-83.

Crabtree countered with two free throws and Niebrugge added one with 11 seconds left for an 89-83 margin. Plainsmen Chad Ideus swished a 3-pointer at the buzzer for the final score as the Titans erupted in joy.

“This is the only thing I’ve experience in college so far. I like it a lot,” understated Korey Coon, IWU’s unassuming and unflappable freshman point guard. “I’m so proud to be on such a tremendous team.”

Coon scored 12 of his 17 points in the first half and joined Crabtree on the five-player all-tournament team.

The Titans opened in a zone defense against Nebraska Wesleyan’s deadly perimeter game and it worked well in the opening half.

Already enjoying a 24-15 lead, IWU reeled off 16 of the next 18 points for a 40-17 cushion and settled for a 49-30 halftime bulge.

“They started out in a zone and we got caught standing around,” said Raridon. “Standing around offensively led to standing around defensively.”

The Titans connected on 18-of-27 first half shots (67 percent) and outrebounded the corn-fed beef of the heftier Plainsmen, 16-12.

“They shoved it down our throat the first half,” Mosser said.

Nate Thomas kept Nebraska Wesleyan alive with 16 of his 24 points in the first half. Ideus added 21.

Hubbard chipped in 10 for the Titans.


PHOTOS: IWU in 1997 NCAA Division III Championship game

Contact Randy Reinhardt at (309) 820-3403. Follow him on Twitter: pg_reinhardt

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