By BRIAN LESTER
Greg Kahlig has had a weight on his shoulders from the beginning of the season. It’s the kind of weight that comes with being the conference preseason player of the year.
He is the player other teams put extra emphasis on while piecing together a defensive game plan; the player they need to slow down if they want a chance to be successful.
Yet, the University of Findlay senior forward has handled the pressure well. He lived up to the hype throughout the season and Monday was named the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Player of the Year.
But Kahlig, who is fifth in the nation in Division II in scoring at 23.9 points per game, and ranks seventh all-time at UF in career scoring (1,762), refuses to take all of the credit for his success.
“It’s a real honor because there are so many great players in this league,” Kahlig said. “To be the player of the year is something special, but I credit my teammates and coaching staff for putting me in a position to be successful.”
As nice as the honor is, Kahlig and his teammates have more important things to focus on, namely tonight’s GLIAC tournament quarterfinal showdown against rival Hillsdale College at 7 p.m. at Croy Gymnasium.
The second-seeded Oilers (21-5) are the two-time defending GLIAC tourney champions, but they split two regular season games this year with seventh-seeded Hillsdale (18-8), including an 86-67 loss to the Chargers on Feb. 27 in Michigan.
The loss cost UF home-court advantage throughout the conference tournament. Lake Superior State is the top seed and will host the final four this weekend if it beats Malone tonight.
The only thing on the mind of the Oilers right now is a battle with the Chargers.
“We’re focused and we’ve had a good week of practice,” Kahlig said. “This is ring week, and it all comes down to what you do this week. But our focus is on this game because at this point, it’s win or go home.”
UF head coach Charlie Ernst joked about having just prepared for Hillsdale last week. He said playing a familiar team can cut both ways.
Either way, it’s the first hurdle on the road to winning a title.
“It seems like we just had this conversation, but there are two ways to look at it,” Ernst said. “You can either play a North Division team that is drastically different than when you played them the first time or you can play a familiar team. There are pros and cons to both. The reality is, we are playing a good basketball team.”
The Chargers have won two consecutive games and five of their last six. They are led by first-team all-GLIAC selection Tim Dezelski, a senior forward who is averaging 23.3 points per outing. He is shooting 57.8 percent from the field and has knocked down 45 3-pointers.
Sophomore forward Kyle Cooper (13.7) and senior guard Brandon Pritzl (10.8) also are scoring threats for a Hillsdale team that averages 74.1 points per outing and allows 73.7.
Last week, the Oilers and Chargers were tied at 45-45 with 17:23 left to play, but HC went on a 16-2 run over the next 4:56 that turned the tide.
“We have to be more patient on offense, share the ball better and guard them better this time,” Ernst said. “If we do those things, we’ll be fine.”
The Oilers are scoring 81.2 points per outing and second-team all-GLIAC pick Jake Heagen, a junior forward, is averaging 12.9 ppg.
Sophomore guard Dylan Kaufman is scoring 11 ppg and sophomore point guard Alphonso Baity, an all-GLIAC defensive team selection, is averaging 10.3 points per outing.
Baity, who has racked up 27 steals and has blocked 16 shots, said defense will be a key to success against the Chargers and their dangerous motion offense.
“We know what to expect, and we have to focus on doing the little things right on defense,” Baity said. “We can’t let them dictate how we play. We just have to play hard like we always do.”
Not only is UF taking the first step toward its eighth title in program history, but it is looking to solidify a spot in the NCAA Division II tournament. UF was ranked fourth in the Midwest Region last week. The top eight make the regional.
“We understand what is in front of us, and our eyes are focused only on Hillsdale,” Ernst said. “We have to play well in this game, and if we win, we’ll worry about the next one.”
Kahlig said he and his teammates are ready for the challenge.
“We know we have to come out and play extra hard and be extra motivated to win this one,” he said. “We’ll be ready to go.”
Follow me on Twitter: @BLester1993