FINDLAY, Ohio — Ohio Dominican's men's basketball team completed its dramatic run through the 2018 Great Midwest Athletic Conference Tournament Saturday in Croy Gymnasium, earning the program's first conference title since joining NCAA Division II with a 71-53 win over Hillsdale in the G-MAC championship.
With the victory, the Panthers (20-10, 12-8 G-MAC) book their first trip to the NCAA Tournament with an automatic bid into the Midwest Regional.
The hottest team in the Great Midwest, ODU will enter the Big Dance having won eight in a row and 12 of its last 13 games.
It was an emotional week for the Panthers, who entered the conference tournament as the five-seed after winning nine of their last 10 games and winning 10 of their last 12 conference games to end the regular season. ODU defeated fourth-seeded Malone on Thursday by a final mark of 87-74 in the G-MAC quarterfinals before one of the biggest victories in program history, a 68-66 buzzer-beating win over No. 11 Findlay in Croy on Friday.
But Saturday marked a new high for the Panthers, who cruised to a wire-to-wire finish to earn their first national tournament appearance since 2002. The program won five games in 2012-13 prior to the arrival of head coach Dan Evans, but have increased in season wins each year during his tenure. In 2016-17, the Panthers finished with their first winning season since 2007-08. Now, in 2017-18, a 20-win season, a conference championship and trip to the NCAA Championship.
"It's unbelievable," said Ohio Dominican head coach Dan Evans. "It means a lot to our program and the entire community. Every single person in the ODU community should feel a part of this."
Behind a stifling defensive effort once again when playing the Chargers, ODU held Hillsdale to just 34.8 percent shooting from the field and 14.3 percent shooting from the three-point line. Ohio Dominican held a massive 46-29 advantage in rebounding and notched 14 assists on 25 made field goals.
ODU fell 72-67 to Hillsdale (21-9, 13-7 G-MAC) in the two teams' first meeting, but dominated defensively in a 65-48 win over the Chargers on Feb. 13, holding the Chargers to just 29.3 percent shooting on 17-of-58 field goal attempts.
The Panther big men came up huge in Saturday's win, with senior Mike DeLeon (Powell, Ohio) leading the way with a career-high 21 points and nine rebounds. Sophomore Hasan Varence (Queens, New York) recorded 16 points and nine rebounds.
ODU wasted no time racing out to an early lead. Varence started the scoring with a close jump shot at the 19:07 mark of the first half. Varence passed to junior Ben Casanova (Sylvania, Ohio) for a layup on the next trip down, and back-to-back free throws followed by another Casanova layup and Varence assist helped Ohio Dominican jump out to an 8-0 lead just three minutes into the game.
Hillsdale cut the Panthers lead to 12-8 at the 13:54 mark of the half, but a 12-3 run by the Panthers gave Ohio Dominican a 24-11 lead with 7:51 until halftime. The Panthers held Hillsdale to just 9-of-32 shooting in the first half and took a 32-20 lead into the locker room.
Trailing 57-35 with 6:36 to play, Hillsdale made a 16-6 run over the next 2:56 to cut ODU's lead to 66-51 with 3:40 to go, but it was too little, too late, as the Panthers went on to win by a final score of 71-53.
ODU will await tomorrow's NCAA Selection Show on NCAA.com at 10:30 p.m.
Contact: Aaron McPherson