Two victories are all that separate the Hillsdale College men’s basketball team from a GLIAC Tournament berth.
With wins at Walsh and Tiffin last week, Hillsdale leapfrogged the Walsh Cavaliers and the Ohio Dominican Panthers in the GLIAC South Division standings. The Chargers, one of the hottest teams in the GLIAC, have won three in a row and six of their past seven games to improve to 9-9 in conference play and 13-11 overall.
If they can extend their winning streak to five games with wins tonight against Lake Erie and Saturday at Ohio Dominican, the Chargers will earn the right to compete for the GLIAC championship.
“We’re feeling as good as ever. For a while we didn’t have a full team with some injuries and sickness, but now everyone’s clicking and clicking at the right time,” junior guard Stedman Lowry said. “We’re confident and I think it’s looking good for us.”
The Chargers wouldn’t control their destiny if they hadn’t pulled out their gutsiest road win of the season on Feb. 9 at Walsh.
Trailing the Cavaliers by a half-game in the GLIAC entering the contest, the Chargers outlasted Walsh 102-98 in overtime to flip their half-game deficit into a half-game lead.
“Our guys walked in there knowing the circumstances, and I think our guys wanted a little revenge from what happened to us here,” head coach John Tharp said. “We showed a tremendous amount of toughness.”
Both teams struggled defensively. Walsh shot 52 percent from the field and 46 percent from the 3-point line, but the Chargers shot 58 percent from the field and made 18 3-pointers in just 33 attempts.
“Neither team stopped each other particularly well,” Tharp said. “Both teams were scoring at an unbelievable pace. So we were disappointed in our defense, obviously, but as I told them, sometimes you’ve just got to outscore people.”
All five Hillsdale starters scored in double figures. Lowry led the Chargers with 27 points on 9-of-17 3-point shooting. Junior guard Ryan Badowski was efficient, scoring 25 points on 8-of-12 shooting. Senior forward Rhett Smith and senior center Nick Archer each scored 12 points, and sophomore point guard Nate Neveau added 11.
“We made shots, and sometimes that’s all you need. That’s not the kind of game we really want to play, but we had it going from three,” Lowry said. “It just came down to who was going to make more plays at the end and we did, so we’ll take it.”
Hillsdale followed up its tight win over Walsh with a dominant showing at Tiffin. The Chargers raced out to a 49-23 halftime lead and cruised to an 85-70 victory. Hillsdale was so effective in the opening period that the Dragons finished the first 20 minutes with more turnovers (8) than made field goals (6).
“We just wanted our defense to be better and our defense was unbelievable in the first half. We were able to quickly get a lead that they were not going to be able to overcome and they kind of quit a little bit,” Lowry said. “It was good to get that one over with quick and not have another stressful overtime game.”
After playing a smaller role in the win over Walsh Thursday, Hillsdale’s bench scored 28 points against Tiffin — 26 in the deciding first half.
“The real key was our bench,” Tharp said.
Tonight, the Chargers will host the Lake Erie Storm at 8 p.m., their final game at Dawn Tibbetts Potter Arena this season. Archer and Smith will be honored before tip off as part of Senior Day celebrations.
“I’m really proud of our two seniors. Archer and Smith have done some really good things defensively and offensively,” Tharp said. “We’ll celebrate the seniors this week and everything that they’ve done over the years for us.”
The Storm are last in the GLIAC with a 3-15 conference record, but the Chargers know they must keep up their intensity with a tournament berth in sight. The Chargers could still make the playoffs if they go 1-1 this week, but they would need some other games to go their way.
Tharp isn’t tracking the playoff race and where the Chargers stand — he said he doesn’t even want to know. Instead, he’s focusing on his team.
“We’ve just got to keep winning. We’ve got to play with that edge,” Tharp said. “As soon as this team relaxes, we can become very soft, very quick, which is not good.”
The Chargers are 7-3 since their roster returned to full strength on Jan. 12.
“We’re confident right now,” Tharp said. “We’ve got to play with an overall toughness and that sense of urgency. If we can do that, I think this team can do some things.”
On Saturday at 3 p.m., Hillsdale will wrap up its regular season at Ohio Dominican — potentially with a chance to clinch a GLIAC Tournament berth. The Panthers will be eliminated from postseason contention if the Chargers beat Lake Erie tonight. The Chargers beat the Panthers 80-71 on Jan. 28.
“We’ll take it as any other game,” Lowry said.”We’re ready to go Thursday and Saturday.”
Should the Chargers lose a game this week, they might have to wait until next Thursday night when Walsh plays its final game to know if they’ll qualify for the postseason.
“I would not enjoy that,” Lowry said.