Title Chase in Review

Ferris basketball - title chase in review

by Sandy Gholston
Pioneer Sports Writer (Mar. 9, 1998)

game action In many ways, Ferris State's trip to the Great Lakes Region of the NCAA Division II tournament was like the icing on the cake.

It was the culmination of a great season made greater by a blistering run through the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championship tournament.

Of course, everyone recalls the Bulldogs entered the GLIAC tournament as the No. 6 seeded team in the conference. They had dropped their final two regular season games and they lost the services of star senior forward Day Day Smith, a first team All-GLIAC North Division selection and a second team All-Great Lakes Region pick.

Perhaps more daunting, was the task of playing the No. 3 seed in the GLIAC tournament, Northwood University. The Timberwolves were team which conquered the Bulldogs twice during the regular season. Each time the margin was slim. The first time the two teams hooked up, it was Northwood which captured an 85-82 win at Ferris' Jim Wink Arena. In the second game, Northwood took the regular season series sweep with a 78-70 win on their home court.

For Ferris, they had no Day Day and they were playing a team which defeated them twice already. So, how do they respond? Try a 71-55 win on for size.

That was only the beginning.

The Bulldogs went on to defeat Ashland in the second round of the tournament, 92-81 and then the host team, Michigan Tech in the final, 71-62 to capture their first-ever GLIAC tournament title.

For their strong play in the tournament, Ferris had three players placed on the All-GLIAC tournament team. Aaron Nauta, Zarie Phillips and Ray Waits, who was named the Most Valuable Player of the event.

The Bulldogs took the time to celebrate their championship victory, but also to ponder the bonus which loomed ahead -- a trip to the NCAA Division II national playoffs.

Bulldog players, family members, supporters and members of the media gathered in the Sports Complex and a makeshift 'War Room' to find the destination of the Bulldog basketball team in the post-season.

"(The players) have talked about it and expressed their feelings that this means a lot to them," Ferris State head coach Edgar Wilson said.

So how do the coaches feel about the NCAA tournament?

"The alternative is that we could be back in the office unpacking boxes and the players could be going to classes," Wilson said with a smile.

The wait was tantalizingly long. The Great Lakes Region predictably was the last group of pairings announced near the end of the show. As the brackets lit up the screen, Ferris State realized they were headed to Owensboro, Ky. for a first round battle with Northern Kentucky, the No. 13 ranked team in the country and the No. 3 seed in the tournament regional.

On that day, everyone seemed to care little. The euphoria of the GLIAC championship triumph still had everyone in the room buzzing.

The journey to Owensboro began Tuesday March 3.

On that day, the long bus ride commenced.

A bus trip with 19 guys, the majority of which stand better than 6-feet tall can be a challenge. Feet stretched out into other seats, bodies were sprawled down the isle. At times, some people were able to find their comfort zone, but with a long trip, such zones were few and far between.

The first key stop on the journey saw the bus stop in Rensselear, Ind. and the campus of St Joseph's University for an afternoon practice.

As everyone exited the bus and entered the gym, the inside of the facility was reminiscent of the one which as the stage for the movie Hoosiers. Still, this gym had no Gene Hackman or Dennis Hopper.

It was just an old near-empty gym loaned to Ferris State for an afternoon of practice.

Practice was rough at the start. Then again, it was about what someone would expect after spending so many hours on a cramped bus which offered little leg room.

"It was good. (The players) are happy to be here (NCAA tournament)," Wilson said. "They had just gotten off of the bus and we were a little fatigued physically and mentally, but they practiced well for the last 20 minutes."

After a while, Ferris State responded and kicked themselves into gear for the latter half of practice. By the time practice was over some of the players joked around with each other, some applied ice to aching limbs and others continued to fire away some parting jumpers at the basket.

Before long they were back on the road.

The next thought after a long bus ride and a solid practice effort -- food.

After a stop in Indianapolis at The Old Country Buffet, the bus was loaded and off for Owensboro, Ky. By the time of the arrival in Owensboro, nearly everyone was asleep. The blare of the sound from the many moves which had been viewed on television was still insufficient to keep anyone from getting sleep.

The only thing which could wake the players, managers, coaches and members of the media from their sleep on the bus, was the prospect of sleep in a comfortable bed.

The next morning, the Bulldogs were up and at them for breakfast in the lobby of the Executive Inn. After the morning meal, it was off to their first practice in the Owensboro Sportscenter.

Upon their arrival in the arena, the players were dressed, but forced to wait. Unlike the friendly confines of the GLIAC, the NCAA tournament brings a more serious, official and perhaps less intimate way of operations.

The Bulldogs received 60 minutes of practice time. They were forced to wait until the exact moment the timekeeper walked to the scoreboard and began the clock.

Ferris State shot around and practiced. They utilized their entire allotted time. As they finished, the next team, Lewis University wasted little time, as they took to the court for their 60-minute block.

"Today was much better," Wilson said. "I think by the time game time comes, we should be fully recovered (from the bus ride)."

The rest of the day was left pretty much to the individual.

Members of the team took a trip to the to one of the popular town hot spots for an all-you-can-eat Barbecue buffet.

With game time still more than 24 hours away, nearly everyone had their fill and then some.

In the evening, an informal reception was intended by all of the teams in the regional, their coaches and some members of media.

Thursday was game day.

The Bulldogs held a light shoot around to get loose and continue their acclimation to the Owensboro Sportscenter floor and rims. The floor was reminiscent of the one which occupied the old Boston Garden for so many seasons.

Like the old floor in the Boston Garden, dead spots were at a premium.

As 8 p.m. loomed closer and closer the wait was nearly over. Still, the Bulldogs showed a little GLIAC pride as they watched conference rival Michigan Tech battle Lewis University of the Great Lakes Valley Conference. The Bulldogs cheered as Tech out the finishing touches on a first round win.

Next, it was Ferris' turn.

The first half started roughly. Two early dunks by Northern Kentucky center Cliff Clinton seemed to set the early tone. The Bulldogs fought back and eventually tied the game at 10, but from there through the end of the first half, the Norse seized control of the game. They started with a 12-0 run to take a 22-10 lead.

In the second half, Ferris State responded. They played closer to the brand of basketball which earned them their conference title. Their defense was physical and intimate. Throughout the final 20 minutes, they matched the intensity of their opponents, but the deficit incurred in the first half was too much to overcome.

Ferris eventually fell to the Norse, 78-63.

The Bulldogs were somewhat down after the loss, but they were by no means completely despondent. They still joked and fought playfully as they had so many times.

In spite of playing without arguably their best player, shooting 26 fewer free throws and being out rebounded by 20, Ferris State felt they had much to be proud of on the season.

The play of Phillips, a senior guard, down the stretch run of the season. In his final games as a Bulldog Phillips played some of his best basketball. They hustle and hard work of seniors Cory Anderson and Tim Dillingham. The inspiration of Smith, who supported the team from the sidelines even as he was unable to play on the court.

That group will be missed. Still, Ferris State can look at the emergence of next season's junior class of Nauta, Ray Pope and Leaondre Salter. That group and others who return will have the experience of winning a conference title and playing for the national championship.

Experience is the best teacher.

"As we grow into what this is all about, we will become more accustomed," Wilson said.