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Comeback thwarted by Wooster in NCAC semifinals

David Meurer  |  Photo by Craig Hicks
David Meurer | Photo by Craig Hicks

DELAWARE, Ohio--  The College of Wooster opened the second half on an 8-0 run. Despite a furious comeback attempt by the Big Red, that early cushion proved to be enough to take down No. 14 Denison, 87-77, in the North Coast Athletic Conference semifinals at Branch Rickey Arena.

Denison trailed 39-30 at the intermission after the Fighting Scots got a buzzer-beating layup by Danyon Hempy after a Big Red turnover.  Both teams struggled to find the shooting touch early on as Denison shot 1-of-14 from beyond the arc and 10-of-31 overall.  Wooster wasn't much better, shooting 1-of-9 from 3-point range.  The Scots' outscored DU 28-18 in the paint, combine that with an uncharacteristic 10 turnovers for Denison and that was enough to give Wooster the early edge.

The opening minutes of the second half proved to be crucial as Wooster senior Dan Fanelly took it upon himself to score the first eight points of the period, giving his squad a 47-30 lead.

In last year's NCAC Championship, Denison was faced with a similar predicament.  Trailing by 16 with 17:24 to play, the Big Red forced overtime and captured their first conference tournament title behind a heroic 28-point effort from David Meurer.

For a moment, the Big Red had fans feeling a slight hint of déjà vu after back-to-back 3-pointers by Garrett Collier and Jett Speelman cut the Scots' lead to nine with 13:56 to play.

The 3-pointer didn't fall in first, but Wooster came up with two big ones when they needed it most.  Milt Davis and Spencer Williams canned consecutive treys to put their team back up 16 with just over 11 minutes to play.

Down the stretch, Wooster and Denison traded blows.  Triples by Speelman and Meurer made it 69-58 with 6:18 remaining.  A 3-pointer by Andrew Castagnetti chipped the Wooster lead to 10 with five minutes to play. Meurer made it even more interesting after his NBA-range 3-pointer went down, cutting the Wooster lead to 72-64 with 4:15 on the clock.

Denison wasn't done.  

They made it a 3-point game when Speelman bullied his way to a basket in the paint with 2:25 to go.  Fanelly came back with a hook shot off the glass and after two missed free throws by Denison, the Scots held a seven-point lead with 1:29 to play.  DU played the foul game over the final 90 seconds but that only played into Wooster's hands.  They went 5-for-6 from the line over the final minute to put the game on ice.

Speelman finished with 24 points and 10 rebounds for Denison.  He scored his 1,000th career point early in the first half.  His 10-for-10 effort at the charity stripe improved his season free throw percentage to .965.  That puts him over the threshold for the single-season NCAA Division III record for best free throw percentage in a season.  That record of .963 was set by Illinois Wesleyan's Korey Coon in 2000.  He is also in line to be the Division III career leader in free throw percentage. That mark of .925 has been held by Andy Enfield of Johns Hopkins since 1991.  Speelman currently boasts a .929 career mark from the line.

Meurer followed Speelman with 22 points and five rebounds.  The Newark Catholic products scored 35 of their combined 46 points in the second half.

Wooster was paced by Fanelly's 32 points.  That matched a season-high as he went 10-of-17 from the field and 11-of-13 from the free throw line.  He also tied for the team lead with eight rebounds.

With the win, Wooster advances to Saturday's NCAC Championship game where they will face top-seed, Ohio Wesleyan at 4 p.m.  Denison drops to 22-5 and their NCAA Tournament dreams now lie in the hands of the selection committee.  The 2017 NCAA Division III Tournament selection will take place on Monday, Feb. 27.  Check for the live video link to the selection show.

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