The confetti fell in profusion Saturday night at the Salem Civic Center.
The NCAA Division III National Championship ended its 23-year run in Salem in style as Nebraska Wesleyan outlasted Wisconsin-Oshkosh 78-72. It was the first basketball title for the Prairie Wolves in school history.
Fittingly, the matchup was exciting and there was one place where the action seemed centered: from behind the arc.
The two teams combined for 31 3-pointers as the long-distance lines were clearly dialed in.
Oshkosh got things going early as the Titans jumped out to an 8-point lead midway through the first half. Nebraska came off the ropes to close to within two with 7 1/2 minutes left in the first before Oshkosh answered to again go up by 8 with 5 1/2 remaining. The Prairie Wolves got the last say in the half, closing to one before sophomore guard Nate Schimonitz hit from long range at the buzzer, sending Nebraska to the break up 45-43, its first lead of the game.
The first half featured 18 hits from behind the arc, including three by Schimonitz and a matching trio of bombs by Oshkosh’s Charlie Noone, Ben Boots and David Vlotho.
Nebraska Wesleyan looked ready to take control in the second half, going up 68-58 when junior forward Ryan Garver hit a step-back trey as the shot clock buzzer sounded.
But, Oshkosh had one final push in the final minutes, knotting things at 72 when Boots hit from NBA range with 2:49 left, his second straight from behind the arc that overcame a 6-point deficit. It would be the last points by the Titans on the night.
Prairie Wolves sophomore guard Jack Hiller broke the deadlock with a hit from long range that put Nebraska up 75-72. Schimonitz followed with a jumper in the paint for a 77-72 Nebraska lead, and Oshkosh gave away any chance of a comeback with a shot clock violation and turnover. Garver closed the scoring on a free throw in the final seconds.
The D3 championship moves to Fort Wayne, Indiana for the next four years, but the two decade-plus run in Salem, the City of Champions, has been spectacular. The mid-March Final-4 was run by Carey Harveycutter, the Old Dominion Athletic Conference and their commissioners Brad Bankston and Dan Wooldridge, as well as a devoted staff from both the ODAC and the Salem Civic Center. Next year, the D3 Women’s Final-4 will move to Salem, albeit at Roanoke College’s Cregger Center.