When the college basketball regular season draws to a close, it has been habit for the men’s teams at Waynesburg and Washington & Jefferson to go their separate ways. Though both are members of the Presidents’ Athletic Conference, Waynesburg and W&J have met in the postseason only twice, the last in 2005.
The Yellow Jackets and Presidents will play it again tonight, meeting in the middle – as the Nos. 4 and 5 seeds – in the quarterfinals of the PAC tournament at Rudy Marisa Fieldhouse. Tip-off is 7 p.m.
Waynesburg (9-7, 14-11) garnered the No. 4 seed and home game by finishing with a flurry, winning five straight to close the regular season including a 68-62 upset of Saint Vincent in the finale Saturday. That game was played on the new hardwood court at Waynesburg, where the Yellow Jackets are 8-3 this season.
The Yellow Jackets defeated W&J (8-8, 13-12) twice in close contests – 75-69 at home and 82-77 at Henry Memorial Center – and Waynesburg coach Mark Christner knows all about the popular sports adage that it’s difficult to beat a team three times in a season.
“I also believe in the adage that if you play the hardest and play the best, then you have a chance to win,” he said. “Those two wins were in the regular season. This is a different season.”
Waynesburg started 0-3 in league play, then lost point guard Casey Hope to a season-ending knee injury. It took some time for the Yellow Jackets to adjust, but they found a winning formula down the stretch.
“We’ve definitely gotten better from the beginning of the year,” Christner said. “We had some injuries and had to move guys to different positions, but we’ve settled on a rotation. When you have guys who understand their role, it adds stability.
“We’ve played better because we’ve shot the three-pointer better the second half of the year, and we’ve improved defensively the last three weeks.”
Waynesburg has a junior-dominated team that features three players averaging double-figure points. Forward Jason Propst is tops at 11.9 per game followed by forwards Jacob Fleegle (10.4) and Thomas Ellis (10.3). Fleegle made eight of nine shots and scored a season-high 23 points in the win at W&J only 20 days ago.
“We’ve played the month of February pretty well. Everybody wants to be playing their best basketball at this time of the year,” Christner said. “When it’s one-and-done, it adds pressure. It can all be over quickly.”
If it involves W&J, then it’s likely to be a down-to-the-wire game. Ten of the Presidents’ last 12 games have been decided by seven points or fewer, including a 72-69 loss Saturday at regular-season champion Bethany. The Presidents erased a 19-point deficit in that game.
If the Presidents can put together a three-game winning streak this week and garner the PAC’s automatic berth to the NCAA Division III tournament that goes to the tournament champion, some of the close losses will be easily forgotten.
“What I like about the PAC is you’re always playing for something,” W&J coach Glenn Gutierrez said. “Some leagues don’t have a conference tournament and several teams are out of contention in mid-January. And if you’re in a league that will get two or three teams in the NCAA tournament, that’s good, but we’re not one of those. … On any given night, anyone can beat any other team in this conference. You’ve seen that this year, and it’s going to be exciting in the tournament.”
For W&J to advance, the formula is simple. The Presidents need to make shots – something that has often been difficult.
“We’re not talented enough to overwhelm a team with physical size, and we don’t rebound the ball as well as we have in the past,” Gutierrez said. “We have to make shots to compensate. When we don’t make shots, then we struggle.”
W&J is led by junior forward Nate Bellhy, who is third in the PAC in both scoring (18.4) and rebounding (8.9). Junior guard Doug Johnson (10.8 ppg) is a 40 percent shooter from three-point range and played well late in the season, and junior forward Mike Resnik (10.2) also averages in double figures.
While this is a rare postseason meeting between the Yellow Jackets and Presidents, Christner said local basketball fans and the PAC could be the big winners if the two can meet more often in tournament games.
“We’ve both had nice years, above .500, and if people come out to watch this game they’ll see teams that give great effort,” Christner said. “You’ll see guys playing hard, rebounding and diving on the floor, and I expect you’ll see a well-played game. High school players and coaches can watch and see that this guy can really shoot and these guys play hard. When you have that, the product will sell itself.”
Waynesburg also will be involved in a 4-5 game in the PAC’s women’s tournament that begins tonight. The Yellow Jackets (12-6, 14-11), the No. 5 seed, play at No. 4 Westminster (12-6, 15-10) at 7 p.m. Westminster edged Waynesburg twice during the regular season. The Titans’ 77-76 in Waynesburg was the Yellow Jackets’ only loss in their last five games.
The Waynesburg-Westminster winner likely will have the task of playing at Thomas More (18-0, 25-0), the No. 4-ranked team in the nation, in the semifinals Friday.
Third-seeded W&J (13-5, 18-7) is on the opposite side of the bracket from Thomas More and will host Bethany (6-12, 7-18) tonight. Tip-off is 7 p.m. The game is a rematch from Saturday, when W&J won 75-64 on the Bison’s home court. W&J has won 10 of the last 12 games against Bethany.
The Presidents have won five of their last six games, the lone loss to Thomas More.