Stevens Point lives up to its tradition

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Joe Ritchay and his UW-Stevens Point teammates did not allow Augustana to have too many uncontested looks at the basket.
Photo by Keith Lucas for 

By Justin Goldberg

SALEM, Va. – At the start of the second half, the Augustana Vikings looked beaten down by the constant pressure UW-Stevens Point had been applying on the offensive and defensive ends during the first 20 minutes of the 2015 Division III Men’s NCAA Tournament finals.

The Pointers’ active hands, backdoor cuts and efficient long-range shooting proved too much for the Vikings, as Stevens Point beat Augustana 70-54.

The starting seniors — Jordan Lutz, Alex Richard, Joe Ritchay, Austin Ryf  — were the stars for the Pointers, as they had been all season. All together they combined for 53 points, with Ryf contributing 17 points and five assists and Ritchay adding 15 and 5, respectively. 

Yet, separating their achievement from others who have survived the gauntlet of the Division III NCAA Tournament is their local roots. Lutz, from Amherst, and Ritchay, from Wisconsin Rapids, grew up within 30 minutes of the UW-SP campus, playing AAU ball together and playing against Ryf and Richard.

Their pride also grew from watching some of the past Pointers, including Joe’s brother, Vinny Ritchay, and the great champions who made Bennett court at Quandt Fieldhouse and the Salem Civic Center hallowed ground. Players the likes of Nick Bennett, nephew of legendary Wisconsin college basketball coach Dick Bennett, and Jason Kalsow, who figures into nearly every UW-SP all-time record of significance. Bennett and Kalsow were parts of the 2004 and 2005 championship teams. Teams that could only have a significant effect on 11-, 12-year-old basketball dreamers growing up in the area.

“I used to go to Pointer games once in a while and watch Kalsow and Bennett,” Ritchay said after the game. “We have a lot of pride in our past of Stevens Point basketball, and we like to use that to set the standard high, and try to kind of get to their level, where they were at. So the past of the program really kind of fuels us that way.”

And what a standard it is, given the three championships (’04, ’05 and ’10) won within seven years, just before the crop of 2011-12 freshmen came in.

Specifically, that standard is embodied by hard-nosed defense — some might say pack-line, if we’re getting technical — and a team mentality that the players referred to as San Antonio Spurs-like.

“I think when you play with somebody for long enough or against them for long enough, you really learn what kind of competitor they are,” Ritchay said referring to his fellow seniors.

When the Pointers were on offense, Austin Ryf and others were able to operate with ease.
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“Some of the things Austin [Ryf] does on the court just inspire me, day after day. Even after seeing him do it for years, it ... makes me want to play even harder.”

A la another team-first but defensively tooth-busting squad — the Virginia Cavaliers coached by Dick’s son Tony Bennett — the Pointers have been hanging their hats, grinning the whole way to the hook, on defense.

“I don’t know if you guys noticed, but we get really excited over defense,” Ryf said. “Even little tips, like deflections, we get so excited about those little things. That’s just what makes us so good defensively.”

The Pointers forced 15 Vikings turnovers in the game, and held their opponent to 20 percent from 3-point range and 23 points in the first half. While the Vikings' numbers improved in the second half, shooting 52 percent from the field and 40 percent from 3, they simply didn't get many shots off. Meanwhile, the Pointers ratcheted up their offensive pressure, most notably with a 17-3 run over the first 6:55, giving UW-SP a 49-28 lead.

There was a point during that run when the ball got loose on Augustana’s side of the court. The ball was batted around a couple of times, until the Vikings’ Griffin Pils secured it only to have it knocked out of his hands again and out of bounds. Pils took his time walking to where the ref had designated the inbounds, rolling his eyes as he did, and it was obvious that the idea of winning had vanished from his and his teammates thoughts.

In the end, Augustana made mini-runs, getting as close as 57-48 on a Hunter Hill layup, with 4:38 to go. But the all-tournament selection Hill, who finished with 13 points on 4-of-11 shooting, could not contort himself or his team to a closer margin.

It was senior forward Alex Richard who put the proverbial nail in the Vikings’ coffin by converting a run-out dunk, and igniting a purple-and-gold bomb of cheers, at the 1:11 mark.

In his postgame comments, UW-Stevens Point coach Bob Semling gave the nod to his “old guys.”

“Those four seniors, they led us. They were great.”

Yet, it was the die-hard Pointer fans who made the homage and the now-legacy official, giving a true Wisconsin chant to their band of brothers as they held up their trophy.

“Thank you, seniors. Thank you, seniors.”