By BRIAN LESTER
CANTON — It was quiet inside the University of Findlay men’s basketball team locker room Saturday afternoon, the sting of a 77-69 loss to Malone University still too painful.
Players sat by their lockers disappointed with their effort on a day when Malone University hit the big shots and won the crucial hustle plays.
On the strength of eight first-half 3-pointers, including four in the first seven minutes, the Pioneers grabbed the momentum, surged into halftime with a 38-29 lead and held off two furious second-half rallies to gain the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference win.
Despite the loss, the Oilers clinched an outright South Division championship because of Walsh University’s 76-68 loss to Hillsdale College. Findlay has a two-game lead with one to play but the 11th title in program history provided little consolation.
“Coach talked about how we lost the game in the first seven minutes,” senior forward Brad Piehl said. “We didn’t come out strong today and didn’t play with the intensity we usually play with. Malone got confidence early and kept it throughout the game.”
Lately, the Oilers (18-7, 15-6 GLIAC) have been dialed in to executing their game plan, especially on defense, closing out opponents’ best outside shooters and forcing turnovers.
It didn’t happen against the Pioneers (14-11, 11-10).
Christian Graves and Stephen O’Daniel III combined for nine treys, hitting three apiece in the opening half. Graves, who connected on five long-range shots, paced Malone with 19 points while O’Daniel dropped in 14.
Zach Bates and Cory Veldhuizen scored 14 and 13, respectively, as the Pioneers shot 49.1 percent (27 of 55) from the field and overcame the absence of point guard Isiah Elliott, who was averaging 19.2 points per outing before missing the last six games with an injury.
“All year, we’ve done a nice job of understanding the scouting report and knowing who the shooters were and how to guard certain people, until today,” Findlay head coach Charlie Ernst said. “The guys that made 3-pointers were the players we knew would make them. Maybe it was a lack of concentration, a lack of preparation or a combination of all of those things.”
The Oilers were out of sync from the get-go. Outside shots were off the mark — Findlay was 6 of 20 from 3-point range — and layups and short jumpers only found rim as the Oilers shot just 36.2 percent (21 of 58) from the field.
“We had some good looks, and those are shots that we need to knock down,” Piehl said. “It would have given us more confidence. We couldn’t get them to fall.”
Piehl finished with 13 points and 13 rebounds, his second double-double of the year, and his 3-pointer gave the Oilers a glimmer of hope as it sliced the Malone lead to 68-62 with under two minutes to play.
Findlay was within striking distance with 55 seconds to play as Aaron Robinson drained a deep trey to close the gap to 71-69. But the Oilers were unable to get another good shot off and lost their fifth game by less than 10 points.
“We had opportunities but we didn’t take advantage of them,” Ernst said. “We didn’t make enough plays.”
It appeared the Pioneers were going to stumble in the second half. Leading 48-33, Malone began to struggle against the Oilers’ defensive pressure.
Jake Heagen, who poured in 18 points and grabbed eight rebounds, hit two free throws, a 3-pointer and a jumper in the lane to help fuel a comeback.
Greg Kahlig (18 points) provided a spark as well, knocking down two treys that cut the Findlay deficit to 53-52 with 10:01 to play.
Malone responded, getting two baskets by Veldhuizen and a 3-pointer by Graves to stretch its lead to 61-52. The trey was set up on the recovery of a loose ball.
“That possession was kind of the tale of the whole game,” Ernst said. “We were a half-step too slow to loose balls and couldn’t come up with the tough rebounds. At the end of the day, you have to make those plays to win, but give Malone credit. They played very well. I don’t want to take anything away from them.”
What was taken from Findlay was a chance to stay in the hunt to host the conference tournament. The Oilers trail first-place Wayne State by two games but will still get a first-round home game and could be the second seed in the tournament.
For now, the focus is on winning the regular-season finale against Hillsdale at 1 p.m. Saturday at Croy Gymnasium.
Findlay (18-7, 15-6)
Heagen 5-14 7-7 18, Kahlig 6-14, 3-4 18, Piehl 2-6 8-8 13, Baity 2-5 3-3 7, Robinson 4-9 0-1 9, Samsel 0-3 0-0 0, Smith 1-3 0-0 2, Kaufman 1-4 0-0 2, Frilling 0-0 0-0 0. TOTALS: 21-58 21-23–69.
Malone (14-11, 11-10)
Bates 5-8 4-5 14, Veldhuizen 5-11 3-5 13, Richardson 0-2 3-4 3, O’Daniel 4-9 2-2 14, Graves 7-13 0-0 19, Ja. Miller 0-1 0-0 0, Jo. Miller 0-0 0-0 0, Lodermeier 2-3 0-0 4, Kazmierczak 4-6 0-0 10, Wasson 0-2 0-0 0, Stone 0-0 0-0 0. TOTALS: 27-55 12-16–77.
HALFTIME: Malone, 38-29.
3-Point GOALS: Findlay 6-20 (Kahlig 3-7, Piehl 1-1, Heagen 1-3, Robinson 1-4, Baity 0-1, Samsel 0-2, Kaufman 0-2); Malone 11-25 (Graves 5-10, O’Daniel 4-8, Kazmierczak 2-4, Ja. Miller 0-1, Veldhuizen 0-2).
rebounds: Findlay 32 (Piehl 13, Heagen 8); Malone 37 (Veldhuizen 10, Bates 7). ASSISTS: Findlay 9 (Baity 3); Malone 14 (Richardson 4, Veldhuizen 3). STEALS: Findlay 8 (Baity 2); Malone 4. BLOCKS: Findlay 1, Malone 4.
TURNOVERS: Findlay 7, Malone 12. TOTAL FOULS: Findlay 15, Malone 15. FOULED OUT: None.