By BRIAN LESTER
Sometimes the stars just line up perfectly and everything you hope for goes in your favor.
You could say about the University of Findlay men’s basketball team in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference tournament this past weekend. Once destined to go on the road to play the final four of the tourney, the Oilers caught a break and capitalized.
Thanks to Lake Superior State stumbling in the opening round, homecourt advantage was handed to the Oilers, who took advantage of playing in the friendly confines of Croy Gymnasium to become the first team in league history to 3-peat as tournament champions.
The Oilers, fresh off a 67-47 beatdown of Hillsdale in the opening round last Wednesday, crushed Walsh on Saturday by a 104-74 score, perhaps the most impressive dismantling of a good team I’ve ever seen, and then finished off their date with history by holding off Michigan Tech 69-63 on Sunday afternoon in front of a raucous crowd of more than 1,100 fans.
Maybe the Oilers would have won the title still had they been forced to play on the road in the tourney for a third consecutive year, but by being at home, it changed everything. It set the stage for a championship run in the conference tournament.
“It was fun to win the championship here,” sophomore forward John Staley said. “It was a great experience to win it in front of the best fans in the GLIAC.”
Oh, and mabye just as thrilling as winning it in front of the fans was that Staley finally has a ring. He was a little envious of his teammates as they showed off their rings last week as they prepared for a title run.
“It feels good to finally join the (championship) club,” Staley said.
It was a thrill to watch the Oilers go to work over the weekend, and the tourney was filled with plenty of memorable moments.
The highlight, of course, was Greg Kahlig finding another way to turn a few heads and drop a few jaws. He scored a GLIAC-record 55 points in the win over Walsh, the third time he has scored 40 or more this season. He is the first Oiler to score 50 in a game since Randy Kortokrax did it way back in 1987.
Kahlig was named the MVP of the tournament, and as nice as it was to be recognized for his efforts, he was just happy the fans were able to witness the Oilers rise to greatness one more time.
“Our fans deserve it. They have been awesome all year,” Kahlig said. “It’s an awesome feeling to win another championship.”
Speaking of awesome, how about head coach Charlie Ernst? In three years, he has led the Oilers to three GLIAC tourney titles. He is 9-0 in the conference tournament and 70-20 in his career as the head coach.
Ernst is a brilliant coach. He should have been coach of the year in the league. To offer up a glimpse of his brilliance, consider what he did with his bench after Hillsdale beat UF in the regular-season finale. You know, that game where the Chargers acted like they had just won a championship.
“I told my staff on the ride home from Hillsdale that the one thing that bothers me is that I don’t have a handle on our bench like I did the past two years as far as how we should be subbing guys,” Ernst said. “Our guys off the bench came up big the whole tournament. They all contributed. I have a handle on our bench now and that will make us tough in the NCAA tournament.”
The NCAA tournament journey begins Saturday night in an 8:30 p.m. (CST) game against Lake Superior State at the O’Reilly Family Event Center in Springfield, Mo. The Oilers haven’t gotten out of the first round the last two years. They are determined to change that trend as they have hit their stride at the right time.
“We want to get after it and have a great showing,” junior forward Jake Heagen said. “Our goals aren’t finished. This (GLIAC championship) is just another step in the process.”
Follow me on Twitter: @BLester1993.