If the men’s basketball season finishes in another storybook ending for defending national champion Nebraska Wesleyan, the latest chapter could be called “Arctic Expedition.”
With a blizzard raging Saturday night outside of Snyder Arena, the No. 1 Prairie Wolves buried No. 18 Loras late in the first half and never allowed the Duhawks to dig out. Behind 33 points, 10 rebounds and nine assists from former Lincoln Northeast all-stater Ryan Garver, NWU secured an automatic bid into the NCAA Division III national tournament with a 97-79 victory in the championship game of the American Rivers Conference Tournament.
Top-ranked Wesleyan (26-1) will learn Monday if it will be hosting the first two rounds this coming Friday and Saturday. Loras (21-6) is a strong candidate for an at-large bid.
NWU avenged its only loss of the season with the victory to win the season series against Loras 2-1, but more importantly enhanced its resume after slipping to No. 2 in the regional rankings this past week.
“This is a huge win for us because they (Loras) beat us earlier and it’s a big rivalry,” said the 6-foot-3 Garver, who was 12-of-16 from the field, scoring on a number of drives to the basket and also hitting 8 of 10 free throws. Garver had 17 points in the first half to propel the Prairie Wolves to a 43-31 halftime lead, sparking a 17-8 run in the final eight minutes of the half.
“We took that (dropping to No. 2) as an insult, and we wanted to show people that we’re for real,” added Garver, who suffered a thigh bruise after a hard foul from Jordan Boyd with 51.2 seconds left.
The Duhawks got no closer than nine in the second half as NWU’s lead swelled to as many as 22 with 2:52 left. The Prairie Wolves were effective both inside and outside, breaking free for backdoor layups and post-ups while also draining 11 three-pointers.
NWU hit 34 of 55 shots for just under 62 percent.
“Both teams are going to the NCAAs, so it was a matter of playing an NCAA-caliber team coming into the tournament and make sure we’re peaking at the right time,” NWU coach Dale Wellman said after a trophy ceremony and the ceremonial cutting of the nets.
“Garv was unbelievable, he did everything out there tonight,” Wellman added. “He’s doing what senior guys are supposed to do this time of year — show up and perform in the big game.”
Five Wolves finished in double-figures — Nate Bahe with 15, Clay Reimers 14 and 13 each from Jack Hiller and Nate Schimonitz, who missed Thursday’s semifinal win over Simpson because of a sinus infection.
“When we beat them, we forced them into a lot of tough shots. Give Wesleyan credit, they hit those shots tonight,” Loras coach Chris Martin said. “When they shoot like they did tonight, there aren’t many teams in the country who can beat them.”
Ryan DiCanio led four Duhawks in double-figures with 20 points.
NWU watch party Monday
The public is invited to join the NWU team and coaches to an NCAA Selection Show watch party beginning at 11:30 a.m. Monday in Great Hall located in the Smith Curtis Building on the Nebraska Wesleyan campus.