Feb. 25 - BETHANY, W.Va. – The PAC title and an automatic bid to the NCAA Division III Tournament will be on the line Saturday night when the third-seeded Bethany College men’s basketball team travels to #1 Thiel for the conference tournament championship game. Tip-off is scheduled for 7 p.m.
The Bison (20-7) reached the title game by winning their first tournament road game in eight years in a 66-65 thriller at Saint Vincent Thursday night in the semifinals. Bethany saw its 10-point lead with 3:20 to play get trimmed to one and they held on as the Bearcats could not capitalize on two attempts to take the lead in the final 30 seconds. Sophomores Reece Mabery (Natrona Heights, Pa./Highlands) and Nick Wilcox (Venetia, Pa./Peters Township) led BC with 15 points apiece and senior Dustin Opalka (Cortland, Ohio/Lakeview) and junior British Alexander (Dayton, Ohio/Trotwood Madison) both tallied 11.
One huge factor to Bethany pulling out the semifinal win was its free throw shooting. The Bison went 18-for-22 in the contest and the 82 percent was a season-high for the Green and White when they have more than 20 attempts. As the season wound down, the Bison stepped up their efforts at the charity stripe when it mattered. After shooting 64 percent as a team through the first 21 games of the year, Bethany is making foul shots at a 73 percent (86-118) clip in the last six contests.
Winning a conference title requires a complete team effort and the Bison aren’t just relying on their top scorers, as they are receiving contributions from the entire rotation. In the quarterfinal win over Westminster, freshman Leslie Addy (Columbia, Md./St. Vincent Pallotti) stepped up with high-energy plays to post career-highs of nine points and seven rebounds. Sophomore Brady Pacific (Avonmore, Pa./Kiski Area), starting in place of injured senior Ryan McFadden (Columbus, Ohio/Mount Vernon Academy), dropped in 10 points in the Westminster win and compiled seven points and a team-best nine boards in Thursday’s win over Saint Vincent.
In addition, Opalka, who was averaging six points a game and shooting 39 percent from the arc in the regular season, is averaging 10.5 points and is 5-for-8 (63 percent) from deep in the two tournament games. Not only did Opalka fire in 11 points against Saint Vincent, he also grabbed five rebounds, passed out three assists and made one steal.
Bethany’s appearance in the PAC Tournament championship game is a common site. This is the Green and White’s third trip to the finals in the last four years and in the 10-year history of the Conference Tournament, the Bison will have played for the championship seven times. Bethany has a 4-2 record in their previous title tilts, taking the crown in 2002 (Grove City), 2005 (W&J), 2006 (Waynesburg) and 2008 (W&J). Both of the Bison losses came in road games in 2004 (Westminster) and 2009 (Thomas More).
This will be the sixth time Bethany and Thiel and squared off in the PAC playoffs and the Bison hold a 4-1 advantage in the earlier games. The Tomcats eliminated BC in the 2003 semifinals in Greenville, but Bethany has won four straight from Thiel. The most recent win came in the 2009 quarterfinals when the Bison, who were seeded second that year, rallied from a 12-point halftime to thwart the Tomcats’ upset bid with a 74-69 victory.
Although Bethany has a winning streak over Thiel in playoff games, the Tomcats have won three consecutive regular season meetings from BC, including a sweep of their two match-ups this year. On Jan. 3, Thiel’s Chace McKinney hit a jumper with two seconds left to lift TC to a 60-58 win on their home floor. In the rematch at Hummel Field House Feb. 2, the Bison shot just 36 percent and were out-rebounded 43-35, as Thiel claimed a 66-59 decision.
The top-seeded Tomcats (20-6) are rolling as they come into the championship game. Since dropping consecutive games by a combined four points in late January, they have won eight in a row, including a pair of double-digit wins in the PAC Tournament. After dispatching eighth-seeded Waynesburg in the quarterfinals 73-63, Thiel used a 27-12 run over the final seven minutes of the game to erase a two-point deficit and pick up a 78-65 triumph over #5 Thomas More in the semifinals. An extremely balanced attack sparked the Tomcat win, with six players reaching double digits led by Blair Rozenblad with 15 points and nine rebounds and Devon Adams with 14 markers and eight assists.
The main strength for Thiel, who is undefeated at home this year (12-0), lies in its defense. The Tomcats lead the conference in nearly every major defensive category, including fewest points allowed (63.2), field goal percentage defense (38.1), three-point field goal percentage defense (29.2) and rebounding margin (+9.8). Thiel has held their foe to 60 or fewer points in 12 games this year, including both match-ups with Bethany.
The Tomcats also have some firepower on offense, led by the 6-4 Rozenblad. He is third in the conference in scoring with 15.5 points per game and is grabbing a PAC-high 9.8 rebounds a game. Senior point guard Devon Adams runs the show for Thiel and is posting 11.7 points and 5.88 assists per contest. Inside, 6-7 Aundra Jones is a force with 10.3 points and 6.5 boards per game and he is shooting a PAC-best 61 percent from the floor. Other big contributors include Ladell Trotty (9.9 ppg.), Lance Randall (9.8) and Anthony Harvey (7.3).
The winner of Saturday’s championship game will receive the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. It would be the first-ever NCAA appearance for Thiel, while the Bison would get to make their seventh trip to the national tournament and first since 2008. Bethany would also clinch its seventh consecutive postseason appearance.