By BRIAN LESTER
Sean Samsel couldn’t wait to find out about the fate of the University of Findlay men’s basketball team in the NCAA Division II tournament three years ago.
As a freshman, he was excited about the opportunity to play in the tourney for the first time. It’s why the senior point guard signed with the Oilers, who have a tradition of success.
His excitement was soon consumed by disappointment as the Oilers, despite a 24-4 record, were left out of the tourney for the first time after a run of nine consecutive appearances.
“It was crazy. We were over at Nate Hyde’s house waiting to see who we were going to play,” Samsel said. “It really left a burn in our belly when we had to see those seniors have their season taken away from them.”
Few words were spoken after learning of the tournament snub, but the looks of the players said it all.
“We didn’t necessarily have an exact conversation that we weren’t going to let this happen again, but we all looked around and knew we never wanted to let the seniors experience that again,” Samsel said. “It hasn’t happened since. It’s a pretty good feeling knowing our season isn’t over yet.”
The quest for a national championship begins Saturday at 9:30 p.m. for the No. 21 Oilers against No. 25 Lake Superior State (26-5) in the Midwest Regional quarterfinals at the O’Reilly Center in Springfield, Mo.
The winner plays either eighth-seeded Wisconsin-Parkside or defending national champion and top-seeded Drury at 9:30 p.m. Sunday. The Sweet 16 is set for 8 p.m. Tuesday night, with the regional champion moving on to the Elite Eight at the Ford Center in Evansville, Ind.
“For our freshman year, to not be there, it left a bad taste in our mouth,” senior Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Player of the Year Greg Kahlig said. “The next three years, we made it our own way. We got the automatic bid and took it out of the committee’s hands. We’re happy to have one more shot and make a run at this thing.”
Senior forward Mark Frilling echoed those thoughts.
“We knew we were snubbed that year,” and it feels good to take care of business again and get back into the tournament,” Frilling said. “We’re tired of going one and done. We want to make a run in the dance.”
The Oilers are the fourth seed in the tournament and are facing a familiar foe in the fifth-seeded Lakers, who won the GLIAC North Division this season.
UF is coming off its third consecutive GLIAC tourney championship and is in the tourney for the 12th time in program history.
UF head coach Charlie Ernst said playing a conference opponent has its share of advantages.
“It helps from a preparation standpoint, not only because you know who you are playing, but because you know their personnel,” Ernst said. “Tapes are easy to come by. Last year, we were behind the eight ball as far as information goes before the game. This year, it’s not an excuse.”
One other advantage that the Oilers have heading into this game is that they plaeyd at the O’Reilly Center a year ago in the regional.
Because the women’s Midwest Regional is also in Springfield, teams will only get one practice inside the O’Reilly Center, and that will be a 25-minute shootaround on Saturday morning.
“I definitely think it’s important that we’ve been to Springfield before, that we’ve been to Drury before, especially this year,” Ernst said. “Our time in the O’Reilly Center is going to be limited. We only get the shootaround there. But we’ve already been in there, we’ve practiced there, we’ve played a game there, we’ve had shootarounds in there. Lake Superior is going to see it for the first time the morning of the game. That has to be worth something.”
LSSU is back in the tournament for the first time since 2009.
The Lakers were soaring during a 10-game win streak but stumbled at the end of the regular season, losing two consecutive games, including a 73-65 loss to Malone in the quarterfinal round of the GLIAC tournament.
Senior guard Derek Billing has been vital to the success of the Lakers, averaging 21.1 points per game. He has knocked down 89 3-pointers and is shooting 50.4 percent from the field.
Senior forward Cameron Metz has stepped up as well, scoring 16.4 points per outing, while junior guard Alex Williams is averaging 14.5 ppg. Williams is a long-range threat as well, having hit 69 treys on the season.
The Lakers are averaging 80.3 points per game and allowing 71.3. They are shooting 47.9 percent from the floor and allowing opponents to shoot 43.8 percent from the floor.
UF won the only meeting between the two teams in the regular season, earning an 88-78 win on the road, but a lot has changed since that showdown in early December in Sault Ste Marie, Mich.
The Oilers have hit their stride, and with that success comes confidence.
“We feel really good. We have a lot of confidence,” Kahlig said. “We’ve been playing well as of late, especially defensively, and we know to make a run at this thing, we have to play well defensively. We have to come out with a lot of energy and play hard.”
Kahlig ranks third in points at UF with 1,855 and averages 24.6 points per game, the fourth-best mark in the nation. UF is averaging 81.1 points per outing and allowing 68.2. UF has racked up 201 steals and sophomore guard Dylan Kaufman leads the Oilers in steals with 43.
Samsel, who has tallied 20 steals, has played a key role off the bench in the success of the defense. He arrived at UF as an offensive-minded player, but has learned to embrace being strong defensively.
“Everyone has to find their niche in college, and some people won’t accept being a good defensive player,” Samsel said. “I’ve just taken that role and made the most of it. I’ve had good leaders in the past, like Aaron Robinson, that have really embraced the defensive side of the ball. I’ve been really trying to do that this year.”
Defense is the key to success in the tournament. It can set the tone for how a team plays on the offensive end of the floor, creating easy opportunities off turnovers. The Oilers have thrived on mixing defenses up.
“We haven’t relied on one defense,” Ernst said. “We’ve relied on three or four defenses, and it has to be a little frustrating for opponents because they have seen us have success in a lot of different ways. I don’t think we are a cookie cutter team. “We’re a team that does a lot of different things on both ends of the floor.”
The Oilers haven’t won a regional title since 2009 when they went on to win a national championship. And for the seniors, who had their tournament dreams dashed as freshmen, they want to make the most of this moment.
“This is our last run as seniors, and we know we have to give everything we’ve got to win this region,” Kahlig said. “It’s a tough region, and we can’t come out with a mediocre performance and expect to win. We’re proud of what we have accomplished, but we know there is still more to do, more to accomplish. We’re looking forward to doing it this weekend.”
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