MARIETTA, OH – A special season, the fifth best in over 100 years of University of Rochester men's basketball, came to an end in the Sectional Final of the NCAA Division III Tournament on Saturday evening, as UR fell 91-87 to #1 ranked Whitman College at Marietta's Ban Johnson Gymnasium.
The #13 Yellowjackets (24-5) were led by senior Zack Ayers who had a career night in his final game in a Rochester uniform, finishing with a career high 27 points and 15 rebounds, going 9-16 from the floor. Fellow senior Sam Borst-Smith added 20 points and five boards while sophomore Jacob Wittig nearly had a triple-double with 15 points, 9 assists and 8 rebounds.
The Blues (31-0), known for their full court pressure defense, were able to confuse the Yellowjackets early on, forcing eight turnovers over the opening eight minutes. But Rochester would settle down, only committing eight turnovers the remaining 32 minutes of the entire game.
"It took us a little while to get used to Whitman's press," said UR head coach Luke Flockerzi, "but once we found our rhythm, we made plays and did enough to win."
The entire first half was played within striking distance both ways for the duration of the 20 minutes, featuring eight ties and five lead changes.
A 7-0 Blues run gave Whitman a six-point edge at the 12-minute mark, but UR rattled off the next six points, all by Ayers, to pull back even.
At the break, UR was able to grab a three point edge, 40-37. Meanwhile, the high scoring Blues offense was held in check, scoring only 37 points at halftime while shooting just 38% from the floor. Rochester also held a huge lead on the glass at the break, taking a 30-17 rebounding advantage to the locker room.
Ayers was strong inside ending the first 20 minutes with 19 points and nine boards.
"Against their press, it was pretty easy to sneak up on the back line and get some layups," he said. "I was also able to attack the offensive glass, using my size to my advantage."
In the second half, Rochester came out rejuvenated, handling the Whitman press, transitioning that into a 13-5 spurt which built out a game-high 11 point lead four minutes in. Two Mack Montague 3-pointers and a Borst-Smith triple highlighted the run.
Whitman would then score19 of the next 28 points, pulling within one with under 12 minutes left. For the remainder of the game, neither team would lead by more than four, with the entire contest featuring 13 ties and 10 lead changes.
"All the lead changes didn't alter our mindset at all," explained Wittig, "we just wanted to remain focused on our goal of winning the game."
With under four minutes to play, the score was tied at 81-81 following a Ryan Clamage layup on the fast break. Rochester would then edge ahead by two following two Ayers free throws.
"The weight of every possession, especially late in the game, was huge," said the senior Ayers. You have to be really strong mentally in a game like that."
Two Wittig free throws would tie the score at 85-85 with 2:07 to play and the Yellowjackets followed that up with a big stop on the other end, giving them a shot to grab the lead with under two minutes on the clock.
An unfortunate turnover then plagued UR and that followed by a foul, sending Whitman's Joey Hewitt to the line for two shots. He would make both giving the Blues the two-point lead.
Rochester then missed two good looks on the offensive end and was forced to foul Whitman's Austin Butler with 30 seconds left in the game.
Butler did exactly what UR needed missing both ends of his two shot chance, but Hewitt outjumped Rochester for the huge offensive rebound, giving the Blues another chance. Hewitt was the one fouled this time and calmly sank two freebies to pull ahead by four.
The 'Jackets got a quick Borst-Smith layup to go down only two and tried to trap on the inbounds, but instead were called for a foul with 14 seconds left sending Tim Howell to the line.
Howell would make one of two, giving the 'Jackets a chance to tie, but Montague's 3-point shot rattled out. Jack Stewart then pulled down the rebound and was fouled, making one of those free throws to seal the win.
Whitman was led by four of their starters finishing in double figures, led by Stewart's 22 that featured five 3-pointers. Both Butler and Howell ended with 17, with Butler also pulling down 12 rebounds, while Jase Harrison chipped in 14 points and three steals.
When reflecting on the season, Flockerzi said "It was an unbelievable year and I couldn't be more proud, especially of our seniors. They led the charge and got this team to another level."
"There's a lot of special guys on this team," said Ayers, while Wittig noted "We were a great group of guys that stuck together on and off the court."