OAKLAND CITY — Simply put, Wilberforce basketball men did what they had to do, and when they had to do it, to beat Oakland City University 87-80 in Saturday night’s seventh annual Christian College National Invitational Tournament championship game in Johnson Center.
“They hit shots when we were in their faces. After shooting 30 percent on threes for the season, they shot 45 percent out there tonight,” Oakland City Coach Mike Sandifar said.
“Oakland City’s a great team and they made some runs, but every time they made a run we answered,” said 6-foot-3 senior Arthur Haggard, named the tourney’s Most Valuable Player after scoring 24 points including four threes — this despite sitting out four second-half minutes when “I blocked a shot, landed on my left side and hit my head on the floor.”
While the Mighty Oaks lost the CCNIT final a second straight year as they closed the season with a 24-3 record, it was a victory for upstate Indiana. Haggard, Darrion Riddle and Austin Daniels, 5-11 senior whose 17 points included a 3-point play with a minute-and-a-half left and four free throws the last 49.6 seconds, all prepped at Bowman Academy in Gary.
The Mighty Oaks, whose 24 wins share the school record with their 2012-13 predecessors, saw win streaks of 16 games on the season and 20 at home end despite rallying from 18-6, 21-8 and 23-10 deficits to within 28-25 and 33-30. Down 46-36 early-second-half, they re-rallied to lead 61-60 and 63-62, the latter score with 9 1/2 minutes left. Trailing 69-63, they took a 70-69 lead when 6-5 junior Addison Wagler stepped out to hit a 17-footer with six minutes left. But Daniels’ three started a 7-0 run.
These answers by a team that entered the tourney with a 6-15 record before sweeping three games, including a 71-69 Friday night semifinal from Rhema Bible on 6-0 senior Malik Breckenridge’s contested 17-foot running jumper with 3.8 seconds left.
“When we received the bid last weekend to compete in this tournament, we just wanted to have fun here,” Wilberforce first-year head coach Kevin Waters said. “Tonight we executed and played solid defense. We had a good scouting report and knew that their No. 44 (Wagler) would be a beast. The offense we ran tonight, we didn’t run Thursday or Friday because we didn’t want to show the plays we’d need tonight. We played freelance basketball those first two games.”
The Mighty Oaks, who hadn’t lost at home since Alabama-Huntsville prevailed 87-79 November 18, or anywhere since taking a 99-72 December 30 beating in Huntsville, missed their first CCNIT title since 2015 and fifth altogether although 6-6 junior Andrew Scott shot 5-of-8 on threes and matched Haggard’s game-high 24 points. Wagler, who apparently played his last college games because he’ll graduate in May and plans to bypass a senior season, authored 22 points and dished 6 assists. Logan Worthington, named Player of the Tournament and joined by Scott and Wagner on the all-tourney team, produced 18 points, a game-high 9 rebounds and 5 assists.
Scott’s 24 points raised his career total to 1,544 seventh in OCU men’s history. Wagler’s 22 pushed his total to 1,437, 10th all-time as he passed 2013 grad Mitch Stahl’s 1,397 and 1954 grad Ed Saber’s 1,416 during the tourney.
Sophomore Beau Hefner, starting Saturday due to his play as a sub in Friday’s 82-72 semifinal win over Hiwassee, scored nine and matched Wagler’s game-high six assists. Junior Mitch Frederick, playing 10 minutes as a sub, hit a three and scored five points, all in the first half return to contention. Joe Hinton, the only current Mighty Oak to play in the 2015 championship run, made a game-high three steals in his career finale.
“This loss is tough, especially after all we did during the season,” Hinton said. “We played really hard tonight, but we didn’t execute as well as we usually do. After getting down early we got tough, but their shooting hurt us and at the end they spread us out and took us to the basket.”
After making 28-of-30 free throws vs. Hiwassee, the Mighty Oaks shot 5-of-10 in Saturday’s first half and 9-for-16 total.
The Bulldogs shot 16-of-23 at the line, but Daniels finished 7-of-7.
“Austin really stepped up. And when they got ahead in the 60s and 70s, we stuck to the game plan,” said Waters, who put his team into a spread offense after Daniels’ 3-point play and Breckenridge’s tightly contested 8-footer turned their 70-69 deficit into a 74-71 lead.
Which became 76-71 when Breckenridge, again guarded tightly, hit a 15-footer. Wagler’s basket inched OCU within 76-74, but then came Daniels’ 3-point play on a drive. Breckenridge’s 10th and 11th points, foul shots at 5.8 seconds closed the scoring.
Statistically the biggest difference was Wilberforce’s 34-23 rebound margin. That and its 16 free throw makes to OCU’s 9 on a night when each team made 31 baskets including 9 threes.
“I told our kids not to hang their heads. We didn’t quit, and we had a great year,” said Sandifar, whose Mighty Oaks will lose Hinton and fellow senior guards Andre Bearden and Christian Marks. “Those three played hard and they’ve gotten an education. Andre has had a bad thumb. And when I asked him tonight if he could go, he said no.”
Saturday’s win heightens Wilberforce desires although Riddle, a 6-0 junior guard, will be the only returning starter in 2018-19.
“Darrion will lead our bid to play in the NAIA Tournament. And we’d also like to play in this tournament again next season,” said Waters.
For the record, Saturday marked the Mighty Oaks’ first game vs. Wilberforce since the 1992-93 season, when they beat the Ohioans 90-77 and 89-87. Despite Saturday’s result, they lead the series 19-12.