DEARBORN, Mich. – Fourth-seeded UM-Dearborn erased a 17-point deficit to force overtime and came out with an 86-78 win against sixth-seeded Rochester to win the Wolverine-Hoosier Athletic Conference (WHAC) Men’s Basketball Tournament and claim an automatic berth to the 2018 NAIA Division II Men’s Basketball National Championship.
On paper, these two teams should have never been here. UM-Dearborn tied for third in the conference during the regular season at 13-7, but lost the tiebreaker to Aquinas to drop to the fourth seed of the tournament. Rochester, in its first season with the WHAC, finished .500 in league play (10-10) for sixth place. But, that’s why we play the games. With nothing to lose and everything to gain, the two teams set their sites on the WHAC tournament in hopes of securing the league’s second automatic qualifying berth to nationals.
The Wolverines won their quarterfinal game against No. 5-seeded Madonna to set up another shot at top-seeded and top-ranked Cornerstone. Approximately 150 miles away, Rochester made a statement by upending third-seeded Aquinas in the quarterfinals to face the tournament’s No. 2 seed and fifth-ranked Indiana Tech.
Together, at different locations, the two teams made history in the semifinals. Playing for their seasons not to end, UM-Dearbornhanded Cornerstone a loss in overtime while the Warriors shocked Indiana Tech to set up a tournament championship game that did not feature at least one of the top two seeds for the first time in WHAC history.
Each playing in their first tournament championship game, UM-Dearborn and Rochester battled in the first half with several lead changes and ties for no more than a five-point advantage until Kash Blackwell hit a three-pointer at the 3:20 mark to put the Warriors up by seven. A few traded baskets and the half ended with Rochester on top 37-31.
Blackwell opened the second half with a layup that started Rochester on a 17-7 run for what seemed a comfortable 17-point lead midway through the period. A couple of baskets here, a couple of counters there, and Rochester still held a double-digit lead of 15 points with 8:31 remaining. Two and a half minutes later, the lead was 14. Another minute later, Jason Penn decided it was time. The senior scored seven of UM-Dearborn‘s 14-0 run to tie the game with 40 ticks on the clock.
Armand Cartwright laid in a two-footer off a sideline inbounds to put Rochester up by two with just nine seconds left. After a timeout, Cody Kegley calmly stepped to the free throw line after being fouled on the inbounds play with three seconds remaining and sank both free throws to send the game into overtime.
Penn started the scoring in overtime and the Wolverines jumped to a seven-point lead thanks to Gage Throgmorton’s next two buckets. Kashwell came through again for Rochester, cutting the lead to five, but UM-Dearborn hit five of six freethrows to push its lead to 10 with just under a minute to play. Cartwright cut the five with 25 seconds on the clock and Rochester was forced to foul. There’s a reason every coach preaches “practice your free throws” – Xavier Crofford and Throgmorton proved why: The duo each went 4-for-4 from the charity stripe in OT and Mafiaion Joyner made one of his as the Wolverines won their first-ever championship game in the league’s first-ever overtime championship game.
Penn finished the game with a double-double: 20 points and 14 rebounds for UM-Dearborn, and Joyner dished out five assists. As the tournament champion, the Wolverines (21-12) earn the league’s second automatic berth to nationals. Cornerstone claimed the first auto bid as regular-season champions. The 2018 NAIA Division II Men’s Basketball National Tournament bracket will be announced at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 28 with the event March 7-13 at the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, S.D.