WAYNESBURG – It has been more than two decades since they’ve had a crowd as large, loud and energetic for a basketball game at Waynesburg University’s Rudy Marisa Fieldhouse as they did Tuesday night.
Back then, the school was still known as Waynesburg College and it was playing in the NAIA instead of NCAA Division III, the guy the gym is named for was still coaching the Yellow Jackets, and Jacob Fleegle and Thomas Ellis weren’t even born.
Fleegle and Ellis, two junior forwards for Waynesburg, helped put a spark back in Yellow Jackets basketball with their performances against Washington & Jefferson in the quarterfinals of the Presidents’ Athletic Conference tournament. Fleegle scored a game-high 17 points, and Ellis came off the bench to add 16, as Waynesburg held off a late charge by the Presidents, 62-58.
“We loved the atmosphere tonight,” Fleegle said. “That was the biggest crowd we’ve seen here. They were into the game from the opening jump.”
And the crowd, which filled about three-quarters of the gym, stayed to the very end as the game wasn’t decided until W&J missed several desperation shots in the final 20 seconds.
The win was the sixth straight for Waynesburg (15-11), which is playing its best basketball at the right time. The fourth-seeded Yellow Jackets did have an unexpected change of plans after the game, when they learned that ninth-seeded Geneva (6-20) had upset top-seeded Bethany, 61-59, in another quarterfinal. It was the first time in PAC tournament history that a No. 9 seed has beaten a No. 1 seed, and it changed Waynesburg’s travel plans for Thursday’s semifinals.
Instead of heading to Bethany, Waynesburg will play at No. 3 seed Saint Vincent (20-6).
For Washington & Jefferson, the season ends with a 13-13 record, and this game looked like so many of those 13 losses – close, defensive-oriented with too many missed shots and turnovers by the Presidents. W&J shot only 27 percent in the first half, 32 percent for the game and was just 10-for-18 at the free-throw line.
The statistic that really bothered W&J coach Glenn Gutierrez was the Presidents’ 12 turnovers. Waynesburg committed just six.
“Two of the things we talked about was getting to the free-throw line and taking care of the ball. We got to the line but didn’t convert, and we had turnovers at critical times,” Gutierrez said.
Waynesburg, which swept the three-game season series against W&J, forged double-digit leads in each half, only to see W&J battle back. The Yellow Jackets started quickly and led 16-6 before W&J put together a 17-5 run to take a 23-21 lead.
Ellis, the Yellow Jackets’ sixth man, came off the bench to score nine first-half points, helping Waynesburg regain the lead. Freshman guard Christian Koroly made only one shot in the game, but it was a coast-to-coast drive and one-handed heave that beat the first-half buzzer and gave Waynesburg a 32-25 lead at the break. The basket loomed large at the game’s end as W&J tried to overcome a tw-possession deficit.
Waynesburg led by as many as 14 points (52-38) in the second half as W&J had trouble stopping Fleegle, who mixed three-point jump shots with slashing drives to the basket.
“He came through for us,” Waynesburg coach Mark Christner said. “He did a good job and made some big shots.”
Fleegle’s biggest basket came with 1:36 remaining, shortly after W&J had pulled to within 60-55. Waynesburg patiently ran down the shot clock and found Fleegle open for a 17-foot jumper near the top of the key that gave the Jackets a 62-55 lead.
“Waynesburg did a much better job of moving the basketball on offense than we did,” Gutierrez said. “When you guard as hard as we do and they do, you have to ball the ball and create some lanes. They were able to do that and get screen-and-pops for Fleegle.”
Fleegle’s jumper was Waynesburg’s final basket, and the Yellow Jackets protected the lead despite missing the front end of two one-and-ones in the final minute. W&J pulled to within 62-58 on a three-pointer by Doug Johnson with 1:25 to play, but the Presidents would not score again. They also missed two free throws down the stretch.
Waynesburg won despite shooting only 29 percent. The Yellow Jackets did make nine of 23 shots from three-point range.
“We guarded with a purpose, and (W&J) guarded with a purpose,” Christner said. “We made a couple more threes than they did, that’s how you can win shooting only 29 percent.”
Waynesburg point guard E.J. Coleman scored 11 points, making all three of his three-pointers.
Mike Resnik led W&J with 12 points and a game-high 12 rebounds. Brett Rubin-Goldstein also had 12 points and Mitch Locher scored 11.
Waynesburg held Nate Bellhy, the PAC’s third-leading scorer, to nine points – half his average.
“They did a good job of moving him off the (low post),” Gutierrez explained. “I don’t know if we did a good job of getting Nate open by moving the ball and setting multiple screens.”