By ANDY WOLF
University of Findlay men’s basketball coach Charlie Ernst can’t measure Austin Gardner’s value with any stat sheet.
The senior starting point guard doesn’t have to put up gaudy numbers.
“Austin is a big key to our program, our culture, our leadership, our practice habits,” Ernst said.
Gardner has been around the block a time or two.
He’s done his share of growing in his five years at Findlay, now ranked No. 16 in the country.
Two major knee injuries in that span will do that.
Gardner is back to his same old self and not thinking about his troublesome knee in the least.
“I’m more mature,” Gardner said. “I’m smarter. You watch so much on the sidelines that you see what to do and you see what not to do.”
He’s one of four senior starters hoping to make a mark on the program with as deep a run as possible.
“I’ve been here a while but at the same time I’m not looking and saying this is my last year, this is all I’ve got,” he said.
The Oilers are on an upward trajectory for big things at 16-2 overall and 10-0 in their first year as Great Midwest Athletic Conference members.
Something has to give, though.
On Saturday, UF travels to meet a Hillsdale team (13-3, 7-2) that has won all eight of its home contests and its last 12 dating back to last season.
Tipoff is slated for 3 p.m. at Dawn Tibbetts Potter Arena in Hillsdale, Michigan.
“They’re one of the top teams in the league,” Gardner said of Hillsdale. “You’ve got to embrace every challenge.”
Findlay, too, has won every home game with its only two losses coming in a three-game stretch at No. 7 Ferris State (16-1) and to Lake Superior State (12-3) in a neutral site contest.
Gardner didn’t play in either game as a minor “bump in the road” from his knee injury last season.
Ernst doesn’t feel Gardner’s absence was the cause of it, yet it proved how his absence is “felt at a lot higher level than people realize.”
When he’s on the court, Gardner gets the offense in motion and helps set a defensive tone.
With so much offensive weaponry around him, opposing teams often choose Gardner as the player to help off of.
“I feel like he’s taken it personally that teams have helped off of him,” Ernst said.
Gardner, who averages 3.7 points per game, only took and missed six shots in his first four GMAC games with one lone point via a free throw.
He’s since been taking the open 3-pointer and attacking the rim hard without hesitation.
“You kind of reverse roles and see how that approach is,” Gardner said. “If there’s a scouting report on me, like what would I do?”
He’s remained his same, efficient self in terms of facilitating and taking care of the basketball as he’s second in the GMAC in assist-to-turnover ratio at 5.8 (35-6).
Ahead of him is Hillsdale’s Nate Neveau with 30 assists to five turnovers, essentially playing the same vital role as Gardner.
“They don’t have a lot of great ball handlers but the reality is he does his job so well that it takes the responsibility of a lot of other guys on their team,” Ernst said of Neveau.
The 5-foot-10 junior guard gave the Oilers fits in their last trip to Hillsdale, tallying 23 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and two steals in an 80-65 victory.
This season, Neveau (10.2 ppg) is one of for Hillsdale players scoring in double figures. He also leads the Chargers with 24 steals.
“First and foremost, he’s one of the best defenders on their team,” Ernst said. “He normally guards the point guard or their best perimeter scorer.”
Fellow junior Nick Czarnowski (6-8 forward) has emerged as one of Hillsdale’s primary scoring options at a team-best 14.6 ppg.
After flying under the radar for most of his sophomore season, he broke out for nine double-digit scoring games in his last 11 games with a previous personal best of 17 points in a 88-74 loss to Findlay at Croy.
Seniors Stedman Lowry (12.8 ppg) and Ryan Badowski (12.0) have made 39 and 30 3-pointers, respectively.
The Findlay women’s basketball team (13-2, 10-1) will also be in action against a tough Hillsdale team (8-6, 6-4) with tipoff set for 1 p.m.
The Chargers are fresh off an 84-68 road win Saturday over Ursuline (11-4, 8-1) which was the last remaining GMAC unbeaten after topping the Oilers four days prior.
Hilldsale’s Allie Dittmer earned GMAC Player of the Week honors after back-to-back monster double-doubles, including a 27-point, 12-rebound effort in upsetting the Arrows. She averages a double-double at 13.7 points and 10.4 rebounds per game.
Dittmer, as well as teammates Makenna Ott (14.6 ppg) and Brittany Gray (13.6 ppg), rank eighth, ninth and 11th in the GMAC in scoring.
Findlay junior forward Anna Hintz (18.9 ppg) has been on an offensive tear recently with at least 19 points in each of her seven games.
Collectively, the Oilers have the third-most efficient scoring offense in the nation at 49.8 percent and
Juniors Jenna Stegmaier (8.9 ppg) and Christa Puthoff (6.7 ppg) have helped that clip by each shooting over 50 percent on the season.
They also possess the GMAC’s most efficient and prolific 3-point shooter in senior Lynsey Englebrecht who has knocked down 57 of 115 attempts (49.7 percent).
Basketball: Gardner gives Oilers a steady presence
By ANDY WOLF