Pilots upset no. 4 IWU, move on to Crossroads title game

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The Bethel College men's basketball team notched its best win of the season by beating no. 4 Indiana Wesleyan 102-95 in an overtime thriller in the semifinals of the Crossroads Tournament. With the win, the Pilots secured a spot in the Crossroads League championship game where they will face the Grace College Lancers on Tuesday night. However, the victory was far from easy.
Ryan Benner drives against IWU in the Pilots thrilling 102-95 overtime victory.
Ryan Benner drives against IWU in the Pilots thrilling 102-95 overtime victory.
The Pilots came in having split the season series with the Wildcats with both teams winning on their home court. Saturday's game was played in Marion, and the Wildcats were the no. 1 seed in the tournament. IWU also came in riding a nine-game winning streak. The Pilots were the underdogs. Still, they came in with confidence knowing that, just weeks prior, Bethel had beaten IWU by ten points. It seems that every meeting between these two titans of Crossroads League basketball is a close game, but few have been better than this one. It started out completely in the Pilots' favor. They jumped on the Wildcats early, building a 16-5 lead within the first four minutes of the game. The Pilots sustained a double-digit margin for much of the first half, but it would have been too good to be true to see that lead continue. It was. A D.J. Bettinger three-pointer gave the Wildcats a spark which they turned into an 8-0 run. With 9:49 left in the first half, the Pilots held a slim 19-16 lead. However, the Pilots had a run of their own. A three-pointer from senior guard Ryan Benner capped off a 7-0 run for the Pilots that stretched their lead back to ten. At the 5:39 mark, junior sharp-shooter Zach Miller hit a triple that gave the Pilots their largest lead of the night, 31-20. Once again, that lead would evaporate as the Wildcats stormed through the remainder of the first half on a 17-4 run. Despite shooting 43 percent from the floor and a perfect 8-8 from the free throw line, the Pilots somehow found themselves down 37-35 at halftime. For most teams, a demoralizing finish like that would crush their spirit. I mean, who wouldn't have doubts after giving up two double-digit leads to the no. 4 team in the country on the road? This team, that's who. Even after Indiana Wesleyan claimed its largest lead of the night early in the second half, the Pilots did not lose their resolve. All they needed was a spark. Insert freshman Ryan Wassink. In a game full of star power, it was a role player who would change the game. With the Pilots in foul trouble, Wassink rose to the occasion when his number was called. His first three-pointer of the night sparked an 8-0 run that gave the Pilots a 61-57 lead with 11:57 to go. IWU kept hanging around over the next few minutes, but huge buckets from Wassink kept Bethel ahead. With 6:43 to go, the Pilots held a 73-67 lead. But the Wildcats are a great team, and great teams don't give up without a fight. Another big 14-5 run from IWU put them back on top 81-78 with less than four minutes to play. Player after player stepped up at key moments for the Pilots, and this time it was junior point guard Matt Schauss. A running layup from Schauss gave the Pilots the lead again 86-85. The very next play, Schauss stole the ball at mid-court and went the other way for the score. Now the Pilots led 88-85 with 1:17 remaining. After a Wildcats bucket, Bethel held a one-point lead with 39 seconds remaining. The Pilots inbounded the ball to senior guard Landon Booker who was quickly fouled. He went to the line for two free throws. Now all great games have one thing in common: the outcome isn't clear until the very end. Despite their amazing play, there were multiple moments when it seemed like the game might have been slipping away from the Pilots. Booker missing his second free throw was one of those. It opened the door for the Wildcats to make a play and (surprise, surprise) they did. With the clock running down in the conference semifinals, it helps to have the conference player of the year on your side. Luckily for the Wildcats, senior guard Jordan Weidner showed why he is one of the best players in the country. A tough shot in the lane tied the game at 89. Still, the Pilots had a chance to win the game in regulation. It almost turned into disaster as Booker nearly lost the ball out of bounds. He recover and found Matt Schauss on the wing. With time running out, Schauss took a few dribbles to his right and put up a fadeaway prayer from the corner. It fell short, and the game went to overtime. Again, after such a hard-fought game when the Pilots had so many chances to beat the favored Wildcats, doubt crept in as to whether the Pilots could really close out the no. 4 team in the country. They erased all doubt in overtime. Despite both Wassink and senior Pat Oetting fouling out, the Pilots took total control of the game behind Benner. He led off overtime with a triple, and set the tone for the Pilots. Later in the extra session, Booker drove into the lane and drew a foul from IWU star R.J. Mahurin that chased him from the game and gave the Pilots a 97-91 advantage. At that point, fans of the Wildcats were probably shaking their heads in disbelief wondering how this game kept getting away from them. But Mahurin is not the Wildcats' only star. Weidner stepped up again, drilling a deep three to cut the lead back to three. The Pilots led 97-94 with just 58 seconds remaining. Schauss led the charge once again, getting a layup to go with 29 seconds left that pushed the Pilot lead to five. The Wildcats once again looked to Weidner as he took the ball the length of the court and drew a foul from Bethel senior Michael Mislan. However, this time Weidner was not so clutch. He went 1-2 from the line, making the score 99-95. Benner got the inbound and was fouled right away. He too missed one free throw, and the Wildcats hurried the ball down the court. Weidner put up another three, but this one would not fall. Mislan grabbed the rebound, was fouled and hit both foul shots. Then the clock ran out. The Pilots made a huge statement with their 102-95 upset of IWU. Now, everyone knows they can play with the best of the best. After struggling at times in conference play, the Pilots now have their confidence back, and it couldn't come at a better time. Their were many big performers for the Pilots on Saturday. They were led in scoring by Benner who had a monster performance. He scored 28 on 12-19 shooting and added in 10 rebounds for a huge double-double. Wassink was the spark off the bench, scoring all 12 of his points in the second half. Miller had 24 points on 4-6 shooting from behind the arc while Schauss had a great all-around game with 20 points, six rebounds and four assists. IWU is the highest ranked opponent Bethel has defeated since 2003 when they upset then-no. 2 Cedarville (OH). Now, the Pilots face a familiar foe in the conference title game: Grace. The Lancers will come into Gates Gymnasium having knocked off Huntington and Spring Arbor in tournament play. The Pilots won both games against Grace during the regular season, but anything can happen in the conference title game. For the Pilots, this is their fifth appearance in the Crossroads League title game in the last seven years. Tip-off is set for 7 pm at Gates Gymnasium.  
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