|In the first meeting between UW-Oshkosh and Wheaton (Ill.), Ben Boots was held to six points, while Aston Francis scored 45.
Photo by David Malamut, d3photography.com
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By Joe Sager
Wheaton is thrilled to be there; UW-Oshkosh is happy to be back.
However, both teams want to advance past the national semifinals when they clash Friday night at the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum in Fort Wayne, Ind.
The game marks a rare rematch from the season’s early weeks. The squads met for the Lee Pfund Classic title at Wheaton and the Thunder came away with an 86-74 triumph on Nov. 17 – a key victory in the young season.
That game seems light-years away now.
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“It’s definitely nice we played them already and we do know them a little bit. But, we’re going to throw that first game out the window. It doesn’t mean much now,” Wheaton senior guard Aston Francis said. “Both of us have improved a lot over the course of the year. We’re going to prepare for them like it’s our first time seeing them. The stakes are a little higher now and we’ll go into it with a fresh mindset.”
UW-Oshkosh senior Ben Boots agreed: “That game was a long time ago. I know we are such a different team than we were in that matchup. There are a lot of intricacies that have changed and adjustments we’ve made to improve. It’s nice to have a little bit of familiarity. We are excited for the challenge and it will be a great challenge.”
It’s been quite a ride for the Thunder (23-8), who weren’t in the final Top 25 rankings at the end of the regular season. After falling in the second round of the CCIW tournament, the team earned an at-large bid to the national tournament as that early win over No. 4 UW-Oshkosh helped its cause.
Wheaton toppled Hanover (84-73), Wooster (78-70), Augustana (93-79) and Marietta (91-87) to reach the semifinals.
“It’s pretty awesome. We’re very proud to get to this place in the tournament, especially this senior class, which was here for the 5-20 season (in 2015-16),” Francis said. “For us to go from there to a Final Four within our four years is something really to be proud of.”
Francis, who joined the program as a junior college transfer in 2017-18, has helped guide the way for the Thunder with a record-breaking senior campaign. His 62 points in the win over Marietta set the NCAA Tournament single-game record. In addition, his 1,052 points on the year established the D-III single-season scoring record. Francis averages 33.9 points per game, but has scored at a 45.0 points clip in the postseason. He had 45 points against UW-Oshkosh in the first meeting.
“He is a really good player. I don’t think anyone in the country could argue that. They are a good team, overall, though. They are well-coached and solid all around. They are not a one-man band by any means,” UW-Oshkosh coach Matt Lewis said. “I don’t know if there is a way to stop Francis. We’ll have to find someone from the NBA to throw on him. Some people choose to try to shut him down and some choose to let him go off. You have to choose where you want to be in that spectrum. We’ll figure out our approach through film. We have to beat Wheaton College, though. That’s our goal.”
For the Titans (27-3) the game marks a return to the national semifinals after falling to Nebraska Wesleyan, 78-72, in last year’s championship.
“It’s not an easy thing to get back here. I think some people might take it for granted when you have a successful team,” Boots said. “It’s a very long journey that started right after the season ended last year. You need a lot of things to go right, good health and a great group of guys that sticks together. We’ve had a good combination of a lot of things and we’re happy to be back.”
After falling to Wheaton in its second game, UW-Oshkosh rattled off a program-record 21 wins in a row. While the Titans lost two of their final three games heading into the NCAA Tournament, they’ve been on a roll with wins over Lake Forest (86-62), Northwestern (108-86), Loras (86-75) and Guilford (82-79).
“I feel like we just kept getting better this year. We had a real nice run in the middle of the season and we learned some things late in the season after some losses,” Lewis said. “The last couple weeks in the (NCAA) tournament, I really like how our guys have continued to get better.”
While UW-Oshkosh may not have one main offensive threat, the Titans have five. Boots leads the way at 15.7 ppg, while Jack Flynn (14.7), Adam Fravert (14.6) and Brett Wittchow (13.7) are right behind. Fifth starter Connor Duax (9.1) can score regularly as well.
“That’s one of our strengths. We have had five guys score over 25 points in a game this year, too, and it’s not like we score 100 points per game. We just have a lot of weapons,” Boots said. “We’re fortunate to have a team that’s so balanced. If teams key on one or two guys, we have another group of guys who can step up. We have uniquely talented players.”
UW-Oshkosh hopes to utilize its balanced attack to get back to the national title game.
“We know who we are as a basketball team and as individuals. We have to show up Friday and try to be who we are,” Lewis said. “We can’t try to be someone else or let Wheaton make us be someone else. We have to execute it on a big stage.”
While Francis grabs a lot of the headlines for Wheaton, starters Luke Peters, Kobe Eichelberger, Anajuwon Spencer and Nyamaye Adom have handled their assignments and picked up the offensive slack, when needed.
“We’ve had guys step up throughout the tournament at the right time and play their role and go ever further than that. It’s awesome to see it happening at this time and great to get rolling,” Francis said. “Some nights, if I am hot, they look to feed me and have confidence in me to hit shots and don’t mind going down and playing defense and doing what they can do, like making screens, passes and getting rebounds for second chances. I’m very fortunate to have guys who trust me and have confidence in me to make plays when we need them, just like I did Saturday night (against Marietta).
“We just want to go in and play well. I think we’re playing our best basketball right now,” he continued. “I think it all starts for us on the defensive end. When we have nights where we’re playing good, lockdown defense and winning the rebounding battle, we come out on top. If we can lock down on defense, get stops and then get out and push a little bit, I think we like our chances.”