John Carroll University and the College of Wooster have arguably been the best two NCAA Division III programs in the nation the last three decades. Perhaps Saturday night's epic contest in the second round of the NCAA Tournament even exceeded expectations. In front of a capacity crowd at the Tony DeCarlo Varsity Center, John Carroll clinched its ninth trip in program history to the Sweet 16 with a 91-85 wire-to-wire victory over the Fighting Scots.
The Blue Streaks (25-5) were led by their incredible senior class. Tony Vuyancih and John Cirillo each scored their 1,000th career points in the victory, becoming just the 20th and 21st players ever to reach the mark in program history. This is the second time in two seasons that two players have reached that milestone in the same year – David Linane and Simon Kucharewicz each did so last season.
"It means the world to me," said Vuyancih. "I had no idea it was even coming. I have 3 uncles, an aunt, my parents and my nephew here tonight and it was amazing to do that with them in the crowd."
John Carroll also moved to 15-0 at home this season. The only other team in program history to win 15 home games was the legendary 2003-2004 group that finished 3rd in the nation.
"I've had more emotions in the last week than I knew ever existed," said head coach Pete Moran. "I just don't want to wake up. This has been an incredible season so far. Coach Moore is the Mike Krzyzewski of Division III basketball. I told him before the game I was honored just to be on the same floor as him. That was a terrific win for us."
Wooster's NCAA Division III-record run of 16 consecutive NCAA appearances ends after a win over Illinois Wesleyan on Friday night. Wooster qualified for this year's tournament as an at-large bid out of the North Coast Athletic Conference. Their season ends at 22-7.
The Blue Streaks were led by senior Matthew Csuhran, who scored 19 of his 25 points in the second half. Vuyancih finished with 16, Cirillo poured in 11 and Ryan Berger added 10. Cirillo also had 11 rebounds in his double-double effort.
Wooster's Reece Dupler and Danyon Hempy ignited the Fighting Scots several times throughout the night, combining for 44 points on 18-0f-29 from the floor. But the visitors turned it over 17 times, which led to 16 JCU points.
JCU blitzed Wooster out of the chute. The Blue Streaks capped a 13-3 run to start the game on a Jackson Sartain 3-pointer with 15:17 left in the first half. Wooster committed 5 turnovers in their first 6 possessions and struggled to get any looks before the shot-clock was under 10 seconds. JCU's first unit sustained full-court pressure and prevented Wooster point guard Spencer Williams from getting into any rhythm. Wooster cut the JCU advantage to three points on four occasions over the first 20 minutes, but never drew any closer than that.
As the half progressed, Wooster's veteran presence steadied their early struggles. Senior forward Alex Baptiste scored six points in just over two minutes for the Fighting Scots to keep the game from getting away. He also delivered a terrific block of Matthew Csuhran at the rim that seemed to ignite the Wooster faithful. Wooster responded with a 13-6 run to tighten JCU's lead to 19-16 at the 10:58 mark of the first half.
Tension grew and tempers flared over the next several minutes, mostly from the stands. With 7:19 to play in the opening half, Fighting Scots guard Eric Bulic turned the ball over, leading to a JCU fast break and free throws. Enraged Wooster fans screamed and pointed at the floor, creating as raucous an environment as the Blue Streaks have played in all season.
That's where the JCU upperclassmen began to shine. The Blue Streaks closed the first half on the most exciting note of the first half. After Wooster's Danyon Hempy missed a 3-pointer with five seconds left, Jimmy Berger grabbed a rebound and fired a bounce pass to Brian Papich. Papich quickly gathered and dunked it with his right hand before the buzzer sounded to give JCU a 40-33 lead at the break.
"That's pretty much our M-O the whole year – to get out and run and beat the other team up the floor," Papich said. "We like to play fast, so when I saw an opening I just took off. Honestly, I didn't know I had that little time. But I know Jimmy would make the right play and it gave us momentum going into the half."
All 18 players that saw the floor in the first half scored at least 1 point, led by Hempy's 13. JCU only hit 3-of-11 3-pointers, but Wooster missed more than half of their seven free throws. Williams especially struggled committing 5 of Wooster's 12 turnovers.
"My brother Pat runs the offense and he really emphasizes attacking the basket," said Moran. "We knew they would defend us a lot like BW did where they would shade towards our shooters and we could attack a few gaps, so our staff did a great job of encouraging our guys to keep attacking the rim. It's hard to go on a run against a well-coached team, especially with media timeouts, when we aren't used to them."
Wooster mounted a solid comeback effort during the second half, cutting the JCU lead to two points on three separate occasions. But Csuhran and Cirillo refused to let Wooster take the lead. With only a 64-62 edge, JCU ripped off a 12-4 run that included two and-1's from Cirillo and some stellar play from Csuhran.
"Sean (Flannery) sets me up really well and Jackson (Sartain) is one of the best 3-point shooters in program history," said Csuhran after the win. "I've been working on my craft for a while now and I have ultimate confidence in myself to get the job done under pressure."
"It was just my opportunity to make something happen," added Cirillo. "I didn't do too much in the first half. That was our run. We usually make one good run like that and tonight that was the difference in holding them off."
The Fighting Scots had one really good push left in them. After a Csuhran 3-ball gave the Blue and Gold their largest lead of the night, Wooster scored 10 of the next 13 points to cut the JCU lead to 86-81. But Brian Papich put an exclamation point on the second half, just as he had done at the end of the first.
"We need to shoot a lot of free throws in practice this week," said Papich afterwards. "We have to be better at the end of the game because we let them back in. In general, we knew they wouldn't foul right away and so we tried to get our transition up the floor. Jimmy (Berger) made a heads up play and threw it into me and I just tried to finish as quickly as I could."
That layup sealed the JCU victory and sent the Streaks to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2009.
"Our senior leadership stepped up like they always have," said Moran. "Each of those guys leads in different ways, but we really need each of their contributions. It was a real dog fight tonight."
"Last year we failed ourselves by talking about the NCAA tournament before the season even started," added Vuyancih. "One big theme for us seniors was taking things one game at a time, no matter what point of the season we were in. All that matters is the next game."
John Carroll will play the Augustana Vikings on Friday night in the next round. In the other sectional semifinal, Emory University will meet the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. Next weekend's victor advances to the National Semifinals in Salem, Virginia.