MARIETTA COLLEGE MEN’S BASKETBALL: Gut-Wrencher

Francis’ 62-point effort stuns Pioneers in Elite Eight

Photo courtesy of Staci Ficht Marietta College’s Tim Kreeger, left, puts up a shot attempt during a college men’s basketball game against Wheaton Saturday in Rock Island, Ill.

ROCK ISLAND, Illinois — It took a record-breaking performance to keep Marietta from advancing to its first NCAA Division III Men’s Basketball Final Four.

Wheaton senior guard Aston Francis scored 62 points, a Division III tournament record, to lead the Thunder to a come-from-behind 91-87 victory over the Pioneers at Augustana College Saturday night.

Francis basically closed out the win for Wheaton (23-8) by scoring 11 points in the final two minutes.

“He’s like a video game,” said Marietta coach Jon VanderWal. “I thought the last two 3s he made, I don’t think we could have guarded him any better. If we had gotten any closer, they would have called us for a foul. We were all over him, and it was just absolutely amazing what he did.”

Francis made 12-of-27 3-point baskets, 12-of-13 foul shots and 7-of-10 2-point baskets.

“I don’t want to take credit away from Wheaton. They’re a very good basketball team, but man I feel like and I think our guys feel this way, that we’re the better team,” VanderWal said. “We ran into a buzz saw today. Francis is an unbelievable player. They made all of the plays and we shot it terribly and still had a chance to win it at the end of the game.”

Down 89-87 – of course following a 3-pointer by Francis – freshman Lukas Isaly’s layup was blocked with six seconds remaining. After a scramble for the ball, sophomore Jason Ellis fouled Wheaton’s Nyameye Adom, who proceeded to make both foul shots with three seconds remaining.

“I told them this is what is great and horrible about sports,” VanderWal said. “One possession and they could be feeling all of the joy in the world or be in total misery. That’s what separates the two.”

No. 22 Marietta (23-7) led 45-43 in the first half and came out on fire in the second half and jumped out to a 60-46 lead after a Mel Shuler 3-pointer. The Pioneers still led by as many as 10 with 9:05 to play following Tim Kreeger’s layup and free throw put Marietta up 71-61.

But Wheaton responded with a 16-6 run – that was sparked by 10 points from Francis – to knot the game at 77 with 4:23 to play. The lead changed five times over the final 4:03.

Marietta tied the game again at 81 following an Anthony Wallace basket and took an 85-83 lead following an Isaly basket and again at 87-86 on another Isaly hoop. But each time Francis buried a 3-pointer to give the Thunder another lead.

Isaly led the Pioneers with 16 points, while sophomore Tim Kreeger added 15 points and 11 rebounds. Seniors Kyle Dixon (13 points, four assists), Anthony Wallace (five points), Keith Richardson (four points, three assists) and Shuler (three points, four rebounds), closed out their careers.

“All four of those guys in different kinds of ways have been so unique and they brought so much to our program, and have touched our program in so many ways,” VanderWal said. “We’re all better off for having those guys around.”

The Pioneers entered the NCAA Tournament on a little bit of downward trend, including a loss to John Carroll in the Ohio Athletic Conference Tournament quarterfinals. However, the Pioneers advanced to the Elite 8 for just the second time in program history and proved they were a worthy at-large selection.

“We’ve got a lot to be proud of. I think the thing that I’m proudest of with this team, you know, we went through a tough stretch at the end of the year where things just weren’t coming easy to us,” VanderWal said. “They just stayed the course, and I’m really proud of them for staying the course and really figuring it out. We were playing really good basketball right now and that’s what really makes this hurt.”

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