The Hillsdale College Chargers kicked off their regular season with a successful road trip to Springfield, Illinois for the Prairie Stars Tipoff Classic last weekend. They played the University of Southern Indiana Screaming Eagles on Friday, and won in overtime, 67 – 60. On Saturday, the Chargers beat the University of Illinois Prairie Stars, 73 – 62.
In their first game of the weekend, the Chargers led for most of the first half, but never by more than seven points. Sophomore forward Davis Larson got into foul trouble within the first two minutes.
“In the first game, I was limited in playing time,” Larson said. “That kinda just affected me for the rest of the game. At that point, I took myself out of the game, so I just had to be a great teammate, supporting the guys who were out on the court.”
Four minutes into the second half, the Screaming Eagles took a 36 – 30 lead thanks to a 13 – 0 run.
Senior guard Jonathan Wilkinson came off the bench midway through the half. He ended the Screaming Eagle’s scoring run with a three-pointer, and on the Chargers’ next possession, he made another. That brought the Chargers within two points.
With three seconds left in regulation, Nate Neveau was fouled. He went to the free throw line and made both shots, putting the Chargers ahead by three. But that wasn’t enough to end the game in regulation. Southern Indiana tied the game with a three-pointer at the buzzer.
“Obviously, we were down about him hitting the a buzzer beater,” Larson said. “But we knew the game was ours to win.”
Junior guard Dylan Lowry came alive in overtime, scoring eight of the Chargers’ 15 points in the five-minute period. Senior forward Gordon Behr contributed on both ends of the court as well with a steal, two defensive rebounds, one block, two points, and one assist.
“At the time when it happened, I was not pleased,” head coach John Tharp said. “I was probably more upset with myself that we hadn’t done a lot of late-game situations [in practice]. It was a hard, hard- fought game. I thought we showed a lot of courage to respond properly in overtime. We could’ve folded.”
Lowry remained hot in Hillsdale’s second game, leading the Chargers with 15 points while five rebounds and one assist. Senior forward Nick Czarnowski led the Chargers with six rebounds.
On Saturday, the Chargers started strong, making the first two shots of the game, but the Prairie Stars quickly took the lead. By the end of the first half, the Chargers had regained control, and Lowry’s buzzer-beating jump shot at the end of the half put Hillsdale ahead 39 – 29 at the break.
Hillsdale remained in the lead for the rest of the game, but the Prairie Stars came within one point after a three-pointer with 15 minutes left. Behr answered with a three of his own to extend Hillsdale’s lead. After a 9 – 0 scoring run, the Chargers sealed their victory as they led by 13 with just over five minutes left in the game.
“I thought there were some times our offense wasn’t clicking, but we could rely on our defense,” Larson said. “It’s always good to have a strong defense in the beginning of a season. Defense first is our foundation. Offense will come later in the season. We played really well defensively and that’s what’s going to win us games.
Larson led the Chargers in scoring with 19 points, while Behr added 15 points, four rebounds and four assists against Illinois Springfield. The Chargers shot nearly 50 percent from the three point line.
“This weekend was truly a team weekend for us,” Tharp said. “Jonny Wilkinson came off the bench on Friday and we would not have won that game if it wasn’t for Jonny’s threes.”
The Chargers’ overall depth made a difference over the weekend and figures to make them a tough opponent as the season progresses. Sophomore guard Connor Hill came off the bench in both games to score 11 points. Larson, who didn’t score at all on Friday came back to score 19 on Saturday. Senior forward Jack Cordes came off the bench and snagged five rebounds to lead the Chargers on Saturday, and sophomore forward Trenton Richardson added five blocks in the two games combined.
“This year we’re very deep,” Behr said. “Our offense will just depend game-by-game on who steps up and scores.”
Tonight, the Chargers will host last year’s Division II national champions, Ferris State University, at 7 p.m.
Tharp said Ferris State will be a tough matchup because of their sharp shooting, speed, and quickness, calling their players “the whole package.” Ferris State did graduate several players from its championship team a year ago, however.
“We all want to win the game. It’s a very winnable game,” Behr said. “We’ve always played Ferris tight, and especially at home we should be able to beat them.”
After its home opener against Ferris State, Hillsdale hosts the Thanksgiving Classic tournament next week.