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March 1, 2013

NCAA Division III basketball tournament returns to Rose-Hulman

TERRE HAUTE — The last time Rose-Hulman served as host for the NCAA Division III men’s basketball tournament, its game was played inside an old World War II airplane hangar.

You “old-timers” should know the building I’m talking about and the matchup wasn’t really that long ago — March 6, 1997, to be exact.

That’s when the Engineers knocked off Washington (St. Louis) University 86-69 in the tourney’s first round. Senior center Kent Murphy led the winners with a career-high 25 points, including 20 in the second half, while Troy Halt of White River Valley added 21 points and Matt Millington of Terre Haute contributed 15 points and four 3-pointers.

It was one of the most fun games I’ve ever covered.

It also was the final contest ever played inside historic Shook Fieldhouse, which was known for its pregame cannon explosions, ringing sirens, clacking blocks from the student section and a hanging banner that read “Give ‘Em Hell Rose.”

Shook Fieldhouse, which debuted as a home for the institute’s athletic events in 1948, was demolished later in 1997.

Rose-Hulman finally gets an opportunity to host another Division III tourney clash Saturday when Calvin College comes to Terre Haute. Tipoff is slated for 7 p.m. inside the Sports & Recreation Center.

Back to the history lesson; when the Engineers defeated Washington University (Wash. U. for short) in 1997, there were several unique circumstances involved.

But I’ll let longtime coach Jim Shaw explain.

“There were a few oddities about that game,” he reflected after a practice this week. “The first one was a couple of weeks before that, we played a thrilling game against Wabash in what was billed as the last game in Shook Fieldhouse. It was one of the games I’ll never forget for the rest of my life.

“We beat Wabash [70-52] to win the [regular-season Indiana Collegiate Athletic] conference championship, which gave us the right to host the conference tournament.

“Then in the conference tournament, Wabash beat us [63-62]. But we still got an at-large bid to the NCAA [Division III] tournament, so even that loss to Wabash wasn’t the final game played in Shook Fieldhouse.”

The real final, final game played in Shook Fieldhouse ended up being the one against Wash. U., which was a familiar opponent for the Engineers.

“The second part of the story that was a little odd was we played Wash. U. in the NCAA tournament the year before … and they beat us [76-74 in St. Louis],” Shaw mentioned. “That [Rose] team was led by Zack Johnson, Kiley Gwaltney and Jason Kear, who were our seniors that year.”

Because Rose-Hulman and Wash. U. graduated four seniors apiece after the 1995-96 season, neither team expected to be as good for the ’96-97 campaign.

“The Wash. U. coach [Mark Edwards], who’s a good friend of mine … we decided to go ahead and set up a preseason scrimmage [in November 1996] and we joked about how ‘we’re not going to be in the NCAA tournament this season with everybody we lost,’ ” Shaw recalled.

“And low and behold, our younger guys developed. We had a sophomore named Bryan Egli, who became a good player, and Kent Murphy and Troy Halt came on as seniors. Troy was the one starter we had back from the year before. We ended up having a great year … and Wash. U. had a great year behind the guys they put around their point guard, J.J. Siepierski.”

So both teams qualified for the Division III tournament after all and they were scheduled to meet in the first-round rematch in Shook Fieldhouse.

“For that game, we had a couple guys [both regular-season starters] ineligible,” Shaw noted. “So the real key to that game was Matt Millington, who had been coming off the bench. He started for the first time all year that night.”

According to my game story that ran in the next day’s Tribune-Star, Rose built leads of 5-0, 17-7, 31-18 and 39-25 in the first half. Then as Murphy dominated the second half, the Engineers padded their cushion to an improbable 62-35.

“After the game, coach Edwards congratulated me and said, ‘By the way, who is Millington? He wasn’t even in our scouting report’ because Matt had not played much before that game,” Shaw remembered.

“We really played well in that game. We had a great inside-outside combination. I’ll never forget, first they single-covered Murph and overplayed him and he jump-hooked ’em. Then he up-and-undered them. Then they doubled him and he kicked it out and Matt made 3s. After that, the only thing they had left [defensively] was zone and Matt destroyed that too.

“We blew ’em out. It was a big win.”

Current assistant athletic director and sports information director Kevin Lanke, who helped broadcast the game on radio station WBOW-AM 1300 as a Rose senior at the time, still has fond memories of that night.

“What I remember about that game more than anything else was the surprise of the margin,” Lanke said. “With the team not at full strength, we thought it would be very difficult to win. As it turned out, Rose dominated the game, especially the second half.”

The next game was not as kind for the ‘96-97 Engineers as they lost a 54-53 heartbreaker at eventual Division III national champion Illinois Wesleyan, but that victory over Wash. U. is one of Shaw’s favorite memories from coaching.

It’s still his only NCAA tournament win.

“Playing in the NCAA tournament is always exciting and a lot of fun, not just for players but for coaches,” he admitted. “Getting a win in the NCAA tournament is something special.”

David Hughes can be reached after 4 p.m. by phone at 1-800-783-8742, Option 4, or at 812-231-4224; by email at david.hughes@tribstar.com; or by fax at (812) 231-4321. Follow TribStarDavid on Twitter.

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