Thomas Ellis is the sixth man on the Waynesburg University men’s basketball team, though Yellow Jackets head coach Mark Christner doesn’t like to use that label.
“He’s our sixth starter,” Christner says.
Still, Ellis is usually the first player off the bench for Waynesburg. Ellis’ relief performance Tuesday night included 16 points and three rebounds in the Yellow Jackets’ 62-58 victory over Washington & Jefferson in the Presidents’ Athletic Conference tournament quarterfinals.
Ellis was pivotal in helping fourth-seeded Waynesburg (15-11) win its sixth consecutive game – the longest current streak in the PAC – and earn a spot in tonight’s semifinal at defending champion Saint Vincent (20-6), the No. 3 seed. Tip-off is 7 p.m.
Two local women’s teams will go to Crestview Hills, Ky., for the PAC semifinals Friday night. Third-seeded Washington & Jefferson (19-7) plays No. 2 Saint Vincent (18-8) at 5:30 p.m., followed by No. 5 seed Waynesburg (15-11) against Thomas More (26-0), the top seed and No. 3-ranked team in NCAA Division III.
If the Waynesburg men are to advance to the PAC title game for the first time since 2006, the Yellow Jackets will likely need another big offensive game from Ellis or another player who begins the night on the bench.
“He’s our most consistent guy” Christner said of Ellis, a junior forward from Fresno, Ohio. “He had been scuffling of late but worked his way out of it. He plays so hard, it just rubs off on everybody else.”
Ellis gave Waynesburg a spark late in the first half against W&J. He cut to the basket and took a nifty pass from Jason Propst for a layup that gave Waynesburg a 25-23 advantage, and the Yellow Jackets played with a lead for the remainder of the game. Two Waynesburg possessions later, Eliis made the first of his two three-pointers, giving the Yellow Jackets the momentum heading into halftime.
Though he has never started a game in his career, Ellis is Waynesburg’s third-leading scorer (10.5 points per game), just as he was last season.
“Depth is one of the strengths of this team,” said Waynesburg junior forward Jacob Fleegle, who led the Yellow Jackets with 17 points against W&J.
“With the offense we run, anybody can score. That’s the beauty of this team.”
Saint Vincent will be playing with revenge in mind as Waynesburg upset the Bearcats, 68-62, at Rudy Marisa Fieldhouse eight days ago. Guard B.J. Durham came off the bench to score 15 points for Waynesburg in that game.
“I don’t think that game will have any bearing on this one,” Christner said. “It did give us the knowledge that we can go and compete with Saint Vincent. They’re a top seed and we’ll go and compete like crazy against them.”
Saint Vincent advanced with a 79-61 win over Thiel in the quarterfinals as forward senior forward Dillon Stith had 24 points and junior forward Sean Kett scored 14 points and grabbed 15 rebounds.
Washington & Jefferson will try for its 20th win of the season and a return trip to the PAC title game when it faces Saint Vincent. The Bearcats defeated W&J twice, 75-55 and 92-82, during the regular season, but the Presidents eliminated the Bearcats in last year’s semifinals.
“They are an athletic team. They beat us easily the first two times,” W&J coach Jina DeRubbo said. “I was disappointed about how we played the first two times.”
One task for W&J will be to defend better against Saint Vincent guard Elle Collins and forward Taylor Mathers, who combined for 49 points in the last meeting.
“You have to remember this: it’s tough to beat a team three times in a season,” W&J junior center Valerie Dunlap said. “We just need to stick to our game plan, run our offense, play our game. Anything can happen. If we play our game and get out on their shooters, we can have a good game.”
Dunlap had an excellent game in W&J’s 85-81 overtime win over Bethany in the quarterfinals Tuesday, scoring 24 points and grabbing 10 rebounds. The Presidents overcame a 16-point deficit to win.
Waynesburg has the unenviable task of trying to derail Thomas More’s undefeated season. The Saints, led by Florida transfer Sydney Moss, crushed Thiel, 127-34, in the quarterfinals and forced 50 turnovers by the Tomcats.
Thomas More is the highest-scoring team in Division III (95.7 ppg) and Moss leads the nation averaging 27.3 points per game though she plays an average of only 26 minutes per game.
Waynesburg was the only lower seed to win in the quarterfinals. The Yellow Jackets used a big second half and Elaine Hasek’s 20 points to defeat No. 4 seed Westminster, 81-64. Waynesburg has won five of its last six.
The Yellow Jackets have played well on offense during its recent hot stretch, producing a 45-point half in each game. The last time the Yellow Jackets played Thomas More, the Saints led by only five points at halftime but used a huge final 20 minutes to win 95-63.