Heading into Saturday's Ohio Athletic Conference championship game, there was just one active player Wilmington College men's basketball player that has played in the NCAA Tournament. He made sure his teammates would have the honor of playing in the Big Dance.
Senior Taylor Wellman (Norwood, OH/Norwood) scored 17 points, pulled down a career-high 11 rebounds and dished out three assists as Wilmington won the 2014 OAC Championship with the 69-63 victory over John Carroll at Fred Raizk Arena in Hermann Court in front of 2,313 fans. He was named the 2014 OAC Tournament MVP for his efforts.
He seemed to have a knack of knocking down big shots at the moment which his team needed them the most, including his three-pointer that tied the game with 13:23 remaining. The shot ignited a 12-2 run that pushed WC to its biggest lead of the second half – a seven-point bulge with 9:49 remaining.
"Taylor was awesome this whole tournament run," said Wilmington head coach K.C. Hunt. "It shows what experience can do. He just had a special night tonight."
However, the lead evaporated in less than four minutes as the Blue Streaks refused to go down without landing several body blows. An 11-3 run gave John Carroll the lead, and the team traded leads until junior R.J. Leppert (Liberty Township, OH/Lakota East) drilled a three-pointer moments after JCU took its final lead of the season with 3:29 remaining. The Blue Streaks' basket was their final one of the night.
Wilmington scored six of the final seven points, all from the free throw, to give the Fightin' Quakers its second title in five years.
While Wellman took home the individual hardware, it was the group of seniors that refused to have leave WC without a title of their own. The quintet of Wellman, Malcolm Heard (Wilmington, OH/Wilmington), Klarke Ransome (Richwood, OH/North Union), Ben Vonderhaar (Cincinnati, OH/Colerain), Christian Patterson (Cincinnati, OH/Norwood), and Ben McGriff (Beavercreek, OH/Beavercreek) tallied 58 of Wilmington's 69 points.
"This senior group deserved this opportunity, and they took full advantage of it," said Hunt. "They really could have easily played in three or four OAC championships in their career. For them to come out and win it to advance to the NCAA Tournament is absolutely fantastic. But, I know this. This group is not satisfied, and we are hoping to make a run in this tournament."
After what seemed like a 10-minute feeling out period to start the game, WC gained traction. Four different players scored during a 10-0 run that gave Wilmington an eight-point lead – its biggest of the game. The good feelings built by the run quickly dissipated as the Blue Streaks went on a spurt of their own to take the lead of their own.
However, the Fightin' Quakers regained their bearings to take a three-point lead into halftime.
"We definitely struggled offensively for about a six-minute stretch in the first half that really let them back in the game," said Hunt. "We were really stagnant, and we spent too much time watching each other dribble and play one-on-one as oppose to playing Wilmington basketball which is getting the ball moving side to side and play inside-out. We did a better job of that as the game wore on. I told the guys at halftime, nothing worth anything is easy. You are going to have to grind this thing out, and just stay mentally tough. There are going to be ebbs and flows to this game, how are you going to handle it? I thought we handled it superbly, like a seasoned, veteran group."
Not only did the team show their experience, the fans – led by a raucous student section – displayed some veteran moxie.
Immediately following last week's pregame Senior Day ceremony, Hunt issued a challenge. Needless to say, challenge accepted.
"I think my direct quote was, 'let's get this place jumpin', and it was jumpin' all night long," said Hunt. "The community support and the fan support from the students were just outstanding. They were definitely a big part we won this game."
Heard tallied his 11th double-double of the season with 20 points and a game-high 12 rebounds. He did most of his damage from the foul line, where he was 13-of-16. Heard was also named to the OAC All-Tournament team, where he was joined by JCU David Linane and Joey Vuyancih, Mount Union's Jarrett Ruffin and Marietta's Andy Dollman.
"Malcolm was very deserving of the (OAC) Player of Year, and I thought he showed everybody why," said Hunt. "Even when he wasn't scoring, he commanded so much attention that other guys had opportunities. Malcolm, I think, is the best player in the country."
Wilmington's opponent will be unveiled 12:30 p.m. Monday when the NCAA announces the bracket with the selection show.