TERRE HAUTE —
In the middle of last week, the Rose-Hulman men’s basketball team found itself in position to clinch the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference regular-season championship outright.
All the Engineers had to do was win at Earlham, which finished this season with 21 losses.
That Feb. 13 matchup was not one of those losses, however, as the Quakers upset Rose 68-66 and ended the Engineers’ winning streak at eight games.
As one might imagine, the stunned Engineers were forced to do a lot of soul-searching during the 150-mile bus trip back to Terre Haute that night.
“It was absolutely the quietest bus ride I’ve ever been on,” Rose-Hulman men’s coach Jim Shaw told the Tribune-Star. “I wasn’t going to tell the guys something that they didn’t already know [by screaming about how they shouldn’t have lost].
“Once we got on the bus, there were no movies, no music — not because I dictated it — but because nobody was really in the mood. We didn’t even stop to eat, which we always do. The seniors said, ‘No, let’s just get home.’ Once we hit practice [the next day], we healed.”
The Engineers did bounce back last Saturday to win at Hanover 59-57, finally clinching the HCAC regular-season title and enabling them to host the final-four portion of the HCAC tournament this weekend in Hulbert Arena.
Hanover, the No. 2 seed, will face third-seeded Transylvania at 6 p.m. today. Then No. 1 seed Rose, the defending HCAC tournament champion, will put its 22-3 overall record (with the second-highest single-season win total in school history) up against No. 4 seed Defiance (16-10) at about 8.
The survivors will clash for the HCAC tournament championship at 7 p.m. Saturday. The winner will earn an automatic bid into the 62-team NCAA Division III tournament, which begins March 2.
Rose-Hulman, ranked No. 23 in the latest d3hoops.com national poll, posted a 16-2 HCAC mark in winning the regular-season crown. Two of its victories were against Defiance — 63-52 at home Dec. 1 and 63-62 at Defiance on Feb. 9.
That means Rose will need a third triumph over the Yellow Jackets from Ohio to advance to the conference championship tilt Saturday.
“It is a cliché and it’s a wrong cliché [about how beating the same team three times in one season is so difficult],” Shaw said. “I would rather play somebody that I have already beaten twice. You know why? Because you’re better than they are. … It’s just how you look at it.”
Shaw figures that if someone could devote enough time to study the history of college basketball, he or she would find that the team which already defeated its opponent twice in the regular season won the third encounter more often than it lost.
Still, don’t think for a second that Shaw does not respect the Engineers’ semifinal opponent, which knocked off No. 5 seed Franklin 85-66 Tuesday to stay alive for this weekend. Shaw and some of his players were able to watch that contest online.
“Defiance is good,” Shaw pointed out. “We’ve got two wins against them. They were both difficult to get. This one will be just as difficult.
“We’ve got to find a way to score. They’ve got one of the best scorers in the history of the HCAC [in 6-foot-4 senior guard Logan Wolfrum]. We’ve got to minimize him. They did hurt us inside and they did a good job defensively [during the regular season]. They’re a really good defensive team, so we’ve got to find ways of scoring against them.”
Defiance is indeed led by Wolfrum, who’s averaging 18.6 points and 5.7 rebounds per game this season. From 3-point range, he’s hit 52 of 120 attempts, good for 43.3 percent.
Against the Engineers, however, Wolfrum was held to 16 and 11 points respectively.
The Yellow Jackets also get double-digit scoring from 6-6 junior forward Ryan Hicks (12.7 ppg) and 6-6 sophomore forward Bernard Edwards (10.2 ppg).
“They’ve got one of the best scorers in the league in Logan Wolfrum,” Rose senior forward Nate Gissentanner said this week. “You’ve got to stop him or at least slow him down. If he doesn’t score over 20 [points], we’ve got a good chance of beating those guys.”
“We really respect them,” Rose senior guard Austin Weatherford said of the Yellow Jackets. “They have a great player in Logan Wolfrum. He’s a great scorer and their big guys do a great job too. They’re a good team. They came close [to beating Rose-Hulman] twice this season.”
Meanwhile, Rose’s top scorers are 6-3 junior guard Julian Strickland (14.4 ppg) and the 6-2 Weatherford (12.5 ppg).
Shaw stressed that any one of the four remaining teams is capable of capturing the tournament title Saturday night.
“It’s not going to be easy for anyone,” he insisted.
One fact worth noting, Rose-Hulman won at Transylvania on Feb. 2 (54-49), won at Defiance on Feb. 9 and won at Hanover last Saturday. That covers the last three weekends, so there is little doubt the Engineers earned the home-court advantage this weekend, despite their unexpected loss at Earlham.
“We’re going to miss our students not being here [because of winter quarter break in classes this week],” Weatherford mentioned. “Hopefully, some of them will get to make it back. But it’s definitely a good feeling to be at home and not have to worry about traveling and staying at a hotel all week.”
Temporarily turning his attention away from the on-court action, Shaw elaborated on the responsibilities of hosting a conference tournament, which Rose hasn’t done since the Shook Fieldhouse era — 1997 to be exact.
It involves much more than turning on some lights and tossing a basketball to midcourt a few times each night.
“There is a lot to do to host a tournament,” Shaw explained. “We are committed to making it first-class, the best HCAC basketball tournament ever. I’ve had a small role in that, but Matt Sinclair [Rose director of athletic facilities] and his people and Kevin Lanke [Rose assistant athletic director and sports information director] have done the bulk of the work and we’re going to put on a first-class tournament.”
• HCAC women’s tournament — The Rose-Hulman women’s team earned the sixth (and final) seed in the HCAC tournament, with all games being played this weekend at Transylvania in Lexington, Ky. Coach Jon Prevo’s Engineers will battle No. 3 seed Hanover in the first round at 8 p.m. today.
Rose lost to Hanover twice in the regular season — 55-43 at home Dec. 15 and 74-63 at Hanover on Feb. 16.
A victory tonight would propel the Engineers (12-13 overall, 8-10 HCAC) into a 5 p.m. semifinal showdown with No. 2 seed Franklin on Saturday. The women’s championship game is slated for 2 p.m. Sunday.
Transylvania owns the top seed with records of 20-5 overall and 16-2 in the HCAC.