If the Defiance College men’s basketball team’s gritty season opener on Saturday offered any indicator as to what this year might bring, Yellow Jacket fans might be in for quite a ride.
Playing host to a tough Titans troop trekking in from Pennsylvania’s Westminster College, the Jackets treated a large and appreciative crowd to a 75-74 triumph on a pair of freebies by sophomore guard Sean Tyson in the waning seconds of Camper/Alumni Day at the Karl H. Weaner Community Center.
The win was a significant one for the young Yellow Jackets, as last season’s brutal 3-22 record was chock full of close potential victories that got away down the stretch.
The Jackets’ late-game moxie didn’t allow that to happen on Saturday against a Westminster squad playing blow-for-blow to the buzzer, though, ushering in a new look and a hopeful omen for the campaign at hand.
“We’ve talked a lot about adversity and being able to handle the ups and downs that really come with every single game you play,” said fifth-year DC frontman Scott Cutter. “And when you’re as young as we are, that is a challenge with young guys just not having the experience and not having been in those situations. But I think the guys are doing a good job … we’re trying to put them in those situations in practice and hoping it translates to a game.
“It’s translated twice — in the Concordia game (a 79-78 preseason victory) there were some ups and downs our guys dealt with — and then certainly tonight,” he added. “It was really back and forth, neither team had much of a lead. I’m proud of our guys for grinding it out.”
Saturday’s season-opening shootout saw 13 lead changes, but the most thrilling — and clearly most rewarding for DC and the home crowd — was the 13th and final swing of the points pendulum with just five seconds left on the clock. That’s when Sean Tyson, a Columbus native who finished with a team-high 20 tallies, strode to the line and turned a one-point Defiance deficit inside-out into a one-point lead that the Titans didn’t have time to respond to.
While the freebies ultimately clinched the win, they were really the end result of a series of gutsy moves by the DC sophomore in crunch time, who was bent on redemption following an ill-fated jumper 40 seconds earlier with the Jackets trailing 74-72.
But rather than pack it in with the ball in Westminster’s possession, a Titan timeout gave Defiance a chance to regroup … and Tyson a chance to think about making things right.
In the final 26 ticks, the Jackets guard did just that.
Tyson first came up with a steal that resulted in a foul and chance to knot the score with a one-and-one, the first of which pulled DC to within 74-73 before the second rimmed out and high. But Tyson aggressively grabbed his own offensive board to keep hope alive as the Yellow Jackets called a timeout of their own.
Twenty-one ticks later, the Columbus product was back at the stripe, this time polishing off a victory.
“He’s a tough kid,” said Cutter of Tyson, who also dealt out six assists in key situations. “That’s one kid you don’t have to worry about with adversity. He’s gonna play the next play no matter what happens. That’s who he is, and that’s why I trust him to put the ball in his hands in big moments. He came through as a freshman in different moments and certainly has so far this year.”
Another sophomore, 6-2 guard Marell Jordan, and 5-10 freshman Avonte Jones also stepped up huge for the Jackets off the bench, as the pair combined for 28 of Defiance’s 30-18 advantage over the Titans off the bench. Jordan pumped in 13 of his 17 total points in a defensive-fueled first half, complete with four steals and a pair of gives that sent DC into the break with a 39-33 edge.
Meanwhile, Jones lit up in the second half with eight points to bring his total to 11 on the night.
Despite being outsized and outscored in the paint 26-14 and tested faced with lights-out perimeter shooting by 6-3 Westminster senior guard Dylan O’Hara — who ended with a game-high 25 points and a pair of clutch triples down the stretch that kept the Titans in front — the Yellow Jackets’ sticky pressure defense in the half-court paved the way for a 16-8 scoring edge off of turnovers that left the visitors consistently frustrated.
A five-minute 13-5 spurt behind six O’Hara points allowed Westminster to steal a 46-44 edge to open the second half, but the Jackets regained their offensive and defensive footing to make keep things tight the rest of the way.
“We’ve got to take care of the basketball,” said Westminster mentor Kevin Siroki. “We had 15 turnovers that seemed like a lot more because they were unforced. We gave the ball up on our own; it wasn’t like they were full-court pressuring us or anything. We gave the ball up on our own, so we’ve just got to go back and get better at it. They’ve been fortunate enough to have two (preseason) games that didn’t count, but that still goes under their belt a little bit. This is our first game of the year with a new group of guys, but we’ll make adjustments and we’ll get back at it. I’m proud of my guys for battling.”
Defiance College (1-0) will now hope its momentum pays off the upcoming weekend as it prepares to host the 45th Annual Purple and Gold Tournament, which tips off on Friday at 5 p.m. in a hardwood scrap against Spalding followed by Great Lakes Christian College against Olivet.
“To me, what (the win) does for our guys is makes them realize you’ve got to stick with it through your runs and through their runs, and just keep focused and not go off course from what we’re trying to do,” said Cutter. “And that’s just a big part of any team that has any aspirations to win a championship. That has to be part of who you are, and I think we’re getting there.”
WESTMINSTER (74) – D. Ritter 9; O’Hara 25; Stamatiades 14; Roth 4; Payne 4; Iler 0; Stitt 5; O’Dell 4; Hutcherson 4; A. Ritter 5. Totals 28-62 9-11 74.
DEFIANCE COLLEGE (75) – Hiegel 3; Tyson 20; Kolar 3; Andrew 11; Cox 8; Perkins 2; Jones 11; Jordan 17; Glock 0. Totals 26-59 10-15 75.
3-point goals: Westminster 9-28 (O’Hara 4, Stamatiades 2, D. Ritter, Stitt, A. Ritter). Defiance 13-28 (Tyson 3, Andrew 3, Cox 2, Jones 2, Hiegel, Kolar, Jordan). Rebounds: Westminster 35 (Stamatiades 10), Defiance 28 (Jordan 5). Turnovers: Westminster 15, Defiance 13.
Westminster 33 41 — 74
Defiance 39 36 — 75