PARK CITY, Kan. – It came down to one final possession in a game that was much more evenly-matched than the seeds would indicate. In the end, No. 2 seed Oklahoma Wesleyan University held off the 15th-seeded Concordia University Men’s Basketball team, 72-70, in the first round of the 2023 NAIA National Championship tournament. The Eagles were able to breathe a sigh of relief when Jaxon Weyand’s open look at a three rimmed out in the closing seconds of the contest that took place inside Hartman Arena in Park City, Kan., on Tuesday (March 7).
One of the very last at-large teams selected into the field of 64, Head Coach Ben Limback’s squad endeavored to make a Cinderella run back to the final site in Kansas City. Instead, the campaign ended with an 18-13 overall mark.
“I’m proud of our effort,” Limback said. “I can’t say enough about this group and its ability to handle adversity. Throughout this game we weren’t sharp – we turned it over 20 times. When you’re a 15 seed going against a 2 seed and have a shot to win it, that’s a pretty special group. It started with our toughness defensively. Brad (Bennett) started to get hot and Noah (Schutte) started to get hot. Everyone was feeding off it – Zac Kulus. Our leaders showed that toughness out there.”
The Bulldogs had hoped to avenge the 79-74 defeat they endured at the hands of Oklahoma Wesleyan at Pinnacle Bank Arena back on Dec. 20. The rematch was disjointed at times and saw Concordia trail for the entirety of the second half. A 10-2 surge to close the first half gave the Eagles a lead they would never relinquish, but it would get hairy down the stretch.
Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference champion OKWU left the door open by going 1-for-4 from the foul line (two missed front ends of one-and-ones). Bennett drained his third trey of the game with just under a minute to go to get the Bulldogs within three (71-68). After a missed Eagle foul shot, Gage Smith put back his own miss and cut the deficit to one. Another missed free throw gave Concordia a chance to steal it at the buzzer, but it was not to be.
The perimeter shooting of the Bulldogs (11-for-33) was a factor keeping them within striking distance all second half. So too was the steady play of Noah Schutte, who continues to tear it up at the national tournament. The Laurel, Neb., native led all scorers with 23 points (8-for-12 shooting) to go with seven rebounds. In addition, Bennett racked up 18 points and Kulus knocked down three second half triples that Concordia had to have.
In his first action since late December (due to injury), the rising star Tristan Smith contributed eight points and three rebounds in 18 minutes. Said Limback of Tristan, “He was a big lift for us, even in practice. He’s not there yet athletically, but he’s such a competitor. You could see it on the jump ball. He showed a lot of toughness.”
This marked the final outing for Tristan’s older brother Gage Smith, a fifth-year member of the program. Gage supplied seven points, eight rebounds, six assists and three steals and was one of several Concordia post players tasked with banging in the paint with KCAC Player of the Year Jaden Lietzke. It was also the end of the line for seniors such as Garrett Seagren, Kelly Vyhnalek and Skyler Woita.
Added Limback, “We have guys that really laid it out there today. That’s all we ask. God gives you these abilities to use. I’m just thankful we had this run this year … all the guys who are coming back, this is a taste of it. The goal is not to be satisfied with just making it. We want to dance a little longer. I think we have a good group coming back. We hope to build on it next year.”
OKWU (27-4) reached the national quarterfinals, just like the Bulldogs, in 2022. The Eagles were paced by Lietzke’s 17 points and 10 rebounds on Tuesday. Teammate Kaleb Stokes (16 points and nine rebounds) seemingly emerged with each of OKWU’s clutch baskets. The Eagles shot 44.8 percent for the game (compared to 44.6 percent by Concordia). Rebounding was nearly even (36-35 OKWU edge).
The trip to Park City marked the Bulldog Men’s Basketball program’s 12th all-time national tournament appearance. The 2022-23 season saw Concordia place fifth in the GPAC during the regular season and then advance to the conference tournament semifinals. The Bulldogs will bring back three All-GPAC players in 2023-24 in Schutte (first team), Bennett (honorable mention) and Tristan Smith (honorable mention).