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Men’s basketball grabs WIAC postseason title

March 1, 2017

The Falcons men’s basketball team punched its ticket to the NCAA tournament in dramatic fashion on Saturday, edging out UW-Oshkosh for a 60-59 win and becoming the 2017 WIAC tournament champs.

This comes only a few weeks after UWRF clinched a WIAC regular season championship. This marks the first time in program history that they have won both titles in the same season.

Karges Center was rocking before the opening tip, with over 1,000 fans being crowded into what could have been the final game in the arena.

“It’s a huge advantage when our fans are being loud and that place was electric,” senior guard Grant Erickson said. “The community and students are really into this basketball team.”

The No. 6 ranked Falcons may have had the fans on their side, but they came out struggling to match the pace and shooting of UW-Oshkosh. The Titans got off to a 23-12 lead due to the sharpshooting of Charlie Noone and Ben Boots.

UWRF fought back to close the gap to 37-31 at the half. Alex Herink and Garret Pearson led the way with seven points each, with Devin Buckley adding six in the first half.

“Our guys have huge heart and a tremendous amount of confidence to get back in that game,” Head Coach Jeff Berkhof said. “They believed they were going to be able to come back.”

The game looked like it might be out of reach for the Falcons after the Titans took a 46-34 lead with 15 minutes remaining, but a lineup of Erickson, Herink, Brennan Witt, Booker Coplin and Austin Moldenhauer sparked a huge comeback.

“Sometimes we have a group of five where the whole mood or vibe of the game changes.  We have so many people that can benefit us,” Herink said.

Berkhof and Erickson also praised the bench play and ability for players to step. They both said it proves how many players can come off the bench to make an impact.

A 19-2 run over the course of eight minutes completely changed the story of the game. A banked-in three pointer by Coplin was followed by an and-one basket by Witt that sent the deafening Karges crowd into a frenzy.

“It’s really hard to keep emotions in check in those kind of games,” Erickson said. “We fed off the crowd and remembered a year ago when we lost to them at Oshkosh [in the championship game].”

The game continued to be a battle down the stretch, with neither team being able to pull away. The last field goal of the game was knocked down by Clay Seifert to give UW-River Falls a 60-58 lead with two minutes remaining.

The Titans only managed to go 1-4 from the free throw line in the last two minutes to keep the game in the Falcons’ favor at 60-59. A tightly-contested shot from Boots sailed left of the hoop in the closing seconds to give UWRF its program’s second WIAC postseason title.

“I’m proud of the guys and how hard and intense they played,” Berkhof said. “They stayed within their assignments and were textbook down the stretch when we needed stops in those last 30 seconds.”

The win came with a very balanced scoring effort for the Falcons. Pearson scored 12 points and 10 rebounds, with multiple big baskets down the stretch. Witt also had another big game off the bench after contributing 12 points and 14 rebounds in Thursday’s win over UW-La Crosse. Witt had 12 points on 3-5 shooting and was 6-7 from the free throw line.

“I didn’t know the stat that we haven’t won both the regular season and postseason title in the same season,” Erickson said. “That shows that our league is tough, and it says something about the season we’re having.”

The game wasn’t without several individual accomplishments as well. Pearson surpassed 1,000 points in his career and Erickson moved to second all-time in career assists at UWRF.

“Those records show we’re pretty old and have played with a lot of good players,” Erickson said. “We don’t really care about accolades too much and just see them as an added bonus to the success of the team.”

The win also helped propel the Falcons to a variety of conference awards. Herink was named WIAC player of the year and Berkhof was named coach of the year. Herink and Pearson also made first team all-WIAC while Erickson and Devin Buckley received honorable mention honors.

The season will continue as UWRF hosts the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament at Karges this weekend. The 24-3 Falcons take on the 21-6 Bethel Royals on Friday night at 8 p.m. The Royals are currently coming off a MIAC championship this past weekend.

“It’s a good thing to have to play Bethel, because we have to play the best to be the best,” Herink said. “It gets our head in the right place, and it will be a tough game come Friday and we have to be ready for it.”

The Falcons will look to keep up their defensive intensity and clutch play that have led them to big wins down the stretch this season. The players and coaches are excited for the opportunity to host at Karges moving forward, hoping it can give them the edge they need to make a run in the NCAA tournament.

The winner of the UWRF-Bethel game will play the winner of the Benedictine-Wartburg game that precedes the Falcons game on Friday. The two winning teams will return on Saturday night to play at Karges again. Erickson said that it’s time to put the rest of the season behind them and finish strong.

“Now we have to put the statistics out the window and play hard,” Erickson said. “We need to find different ways to win and take it one game at a time.”

Pre-sale tickets will go on sale in the UWRF athletic office on Thursday from 7:30 a.m.-3 p.m. and Friday from 7:30 a.m.-12 p.m.