By RJ Walters / Daily News Sports Editor
As published in the Hillsdale Daily News on March 2, 2009
The Hillsdale College men’s basketball team is playing the right kind of basketball at precisely the right time and it’s starting to make all the difference.
A difference such as the Chargers (16-10 overall, 148 GLIAC) will now host Michigan Tech in a firstround GLIAC tournament Tuesday thanks to an 89-63 beat-down of Ashland (1016, 8-14) Saturday. And a difference so big the Chargers are on the cusp of the programs’ third D-II NCAA tournament ever, and first since the 2001-02 season.
Not bad for a team that went through a coaching change less than 24 months ago and saw several key players cut and run, and not bat for a squad that ended last season in somewhat of a tailspin and went almost an entire month without a win this year.
Senior guard Travis Worst, one of just three Chargers who have been around the last four seasons, said it is awesome to be part of the success right now, but he’s not surprised that head coach John Tharp has been the right man for the job.
“We’ve had a long season and had a stretch where we lost seven straight and finally to be coming in here at the end of February and playing our best basketball, especially tonight…after going through that coaching change, it paid off for us and all our hard work,’ he said. “From the first time Tharp came in to interview, me and Tony (Gugino), we looked at each other and were like ‘We’re staying’. This guy, he knows what he’s talking about, he’s a good guy and we wanted to play ball for him and it’s paying off.”
Worst said Tharp has preached defensive intensity and consistency from the day he took over and on Saturday it was that defense that spurred the Chargers to a 38-6 lead over the Eagles less than 15 minutes into the contest, a lead that didn’t fall below 22 the rest of the evening.
The Chargers needed a victory to guarantee themselves the 3-seed in the conference tournament and to solidify their No. 8 ranking in the D-II Midwest Regional Rankings, a spot that theoretically gives them the last NCAA Tournament berth for the region, and they came out like a wolf locked in on its prey.
Behind several steals and 3-pointers from Keith MacKenzie and a fine-tuned transition offense the Chargers led 18-0 by the 13:42 mark of the first half and they looked every bit like a team that has won 10 of its final 12 regular season contests.
“I just told our guys I thought our defensive effort in the first 15 minutes of the first half was terrific,’ Tharp said. ‘I know Ashland didn’t make many shots and that was part of our defense, but I thought we were swarming and we were active and we really attacked from a transition standpoint from that.”
MacKenzie finished the contest with 16 points and four assists, while fellow senior Evan Steward was good for five points and eight assists in his final home game, but what made everything flow so naturally was another dominating performance out of Gugino inside.
The senior center has played as well as anyone in the GLIAC the last month and he continued that streak with 28 points on 11for-15 shooting to go with 16 rebounds and three blocks.
“With Tony…it’s up to Tony kind of. Right now he’s confident and relaxed with himself almost,’ Tharp said. ‘He’s been a force inside and so has (Chris) Skaggs and that helps our basketball team so much to have an inside option to go with our outside shooters.”
Tyler Rosenberger led Ashland with 13 points and Blake Saunders tallied 11 points and seven rebounds, but they were held to just 33.9 percent shooting from the field and had nine assists to 15 turnovers.
The 1,000-plus fans in attendance seemed more than pleased with the home team on Senior Day, but the past is now history and the future is only as bright as the Chargers’ performance from this point forward, as every game will help define how this team is remembered.
The future begins Tuesday, when the 6-seed Huskies come to town, a Huskies squad that beat the Chargers 69-61 at Jesse Philips Arena on Jan. 15, before Hillsdale avenged it with a 64-56 win on Feb. 21. With Kentucky Wesleyan and league foe Grand Valley just behind Hillsdale for the final spot in the NCAA tourney Tharp said the team has talked about what’s at stake and how they can accomplish their goals.
‘(Michigan Tech) is a very good defensive team and it’s going to be more of a dragout brawl,” he said, noting that depth and foul-trouble could play into the final verdict.
Tharp said it’s a pressure situation, but just the situation they’ve been working so hard to put themselves in.
“We talked about it and we do think we have to win that game Tuesday and if we win Tuesday we think we have to win the game on Friday,’ he said. ‘We have talked about it from the idea of showing them an opportunity that they have and we think it’s our responsibility to tell them here it is. We’ve talked all week about enjoying this. This is not pressure, this is why you play, this what we’ve worked so hard and you have to take advantage of it.”
With a wide-grin and telling eyes Worst said this is what he’s been playing for his entire career and he couldn’t ask for a better group of guys to experience it with.
“It’s awesome, that’s what you play for. I’ve been here three years and we’ve lost in the first-round of GLIACs` before, but we’ve never had home-court advantage and it’s going to be fun to come back here one last game,’ he said. ‘And definitely going to the dance, that’s what everybody plays for.”
Worst had plenty to say about Tharp’s positive effect on the team, but Tharp was just as grateful toward Worst and his fellow seniors.
“I’m happy because Tony and Evan and Travis have been through a coaching change and that’s hard for any kid to go through. They had three or four of their teammates who just bailed out and left them and they stayed with Hillsdale College,’ he said. ‘They’ve been receptive to some of the changes we’ve tried to make, so from my perspective I can’t tell you how thankful I am for those three guys. If they had left I don’t know where we’d be, probably a whole world of trouble.”