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A Beautiful Puzzle: Basketball Advances to National Semifinals

Shooters know. They have that feeling that the ball is going in as soon as it leaves their hands.

As he rose for a jumper from the right wing and sent the ball on its arc to the basket, Vinny Buccilla ’25 knew it was good.

“I did,” he said after the game as unflinchingly as when he shot it. “I know my teammates have confidence in me and they trusted me at the end. When I caught it, I thought, ‘I’m shooting this.’”

Vinny Buccilla's (front right, #2) timely three-pointer evetually set off a celebration.The shot splashed through the net with 40 seconds to go and essentially put the game out of reach as the Little Giants pulled away and defeated Illinois Wesleyan, 81-75, Saturday to advance to the NCAA Division III national semifinals for the first time in 40 years.

What makes this sixth man, a freshman from Fortville, Indiana, think that he should take what might have been the most consequential shot of the season?

“Everyone is so unselfish,” said guard Tyler Watson ’22, who posted 18 points, eight rebounds, and five assists in the win. “We trust each other. We love each other. There is a feeling that we're going to keep making the right play for one another.”

Wabash needed every bit of that love and trust to defeat the Titans (24-6), a perennial Division III power and national seed, on its home court.

“To come into a place like this, a school that’s had so much success in the past, we knew we were in for a battle, and we were ready for it,” said national player-of-the-year finalist Jack Davidson ’22. “This is a game you have to win when you’re climbing the mountain to get to the get to the Final Four. To find a way to get it done with these guys is amazing.”

This slugfest featured eight ties and eight lead changes. The teams seemed to trade haymakers from the opening tip. Wabash scored the game’s first 10 points before Illinois Wesleyan answered to take a 17-16 lead.

The Titans threatened to pull away late in the first half before Ahmoni Jones ’23 collected an offensive rebound and buried a fadeaway jumper along the left baseline at the buzzer that seemed to settle some of Wabash’s shakiness.

The Little Giants trailed 39-34 at the break, the first time it faced a halftime deficit in 21 games.

The squad responded with an 11-5 run to open the second half and retake the lead. IWU answered with a burst of its own and led by five shortly thereafter. Kellen Schreiber’s basket and free throw tied the game at 60 with just over eight minutes to play, setting up Buccilla’s eventual heroics.

This Little Giant team is fun to watch because everyone seems to make a play when it matters most. While much of Kellen Schreiber tallied 15 points and four rebounds Saturday.the attention is focused on the Big Three of Davidson, Watson, and Schreiber, who combined to average nearly 60 points and 17 rebounds per game, plays like those made by Jones and Bucilla give the team balance.

“We know day in and day most everyone is focused on those three players,” Jones said. “I just know everyone on the court believes in each other.”

Davidson led all scorers Saturday with 29 points, but it was his defense that may have proven most influential. He held IWU’s Cory Noe, who entered the game averaging 13 points per game, to just five points on 1-of-11 shooting. In a sectional final, every play makes a difference.

There isn’t magic behind the team’s current 24-game win streak. No one simply flipped a switch. It’s hard work building the trust and love in each other. Something that has been building for four years.

“I've never been around guys who work as hard as this group,” said head coach Kyle Brumett. “We knew we had something special after Jack's freshman year and when Tyler decided to join us. It was hard figuring out how to fit all the pieces of the puzzle together, but we have a really beautiful puzzle.”

No one was talking about conference titles or NCAA tournaments on December 4 when the team sat at 4-3 after a disheartening home loss. Despite the loss that day, this group never lost faith in each other.

“It was harder than expected fitting our pieces together,” Brumett explained. “We were humbled. Once we accepted the fact that we had to do some things better and differently, the tides turned. These guys make a difference when they make plays for their teammates.”

After a stellar weekend in Bloomington, this group is headed to Fort Wayne for a Friday night date with Elmhurst University in the national Jack Davidson shined at both ends of the court in the win over Illinois Wesleyan.semifinals, one of four teams still fighting for the national championship.

“All I wanted from this weekend was to be able to practice on Monday,” Davidson said, his voice echoing through an empty Shirk Center hallway. “We got that chance and, man, and it's gonna be awesome in Fort Wayne.”

Schreiber felt the same, still on the court nearly an hour after the final horn sounded wearing a huge smile and a clipping of the net dangling from his ear.

“This means the world,” said Schreiber. “It’s something that every basketball player dreams of since we were little kids. Now, I get to live out that dream. There’s nothing I’d rather do than play basketball and I’ve never been more excited to go to practice on Monday.”