By ANDY WOLF
How sweet it is.
The No. 25-ranked University of Findlay men’s basketball team is back in the Sweet 16 for the first since its 2009 national title run.
The Oilers led the final 14 minutes to edge No. 14 Ferris State 68-63 in the Division II regional semifinals Sunday at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky.
“What it means is that we’ve got a really talented group of players, a tremendous staff and a group of people with a lot of desire,” UF coach Charlie Ernst said.
“It’s a long season. It’s a long grind; a lot of ups and downs.”
The Sweet 16 trip is the fourth in school history.
Ernst had been a part of the first three as an assistant before taking over as head coach in the 2011-12 season.
That season ended with a 86-63 loss against host Bellarmine in the regional semifinals.
The Oilers will get a shot at redemption as they take on the host and top-seeded Knights (30-3) in the regional finals at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
They’re now the last Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference team remaining in the playoffs.
Ferris State, which ended Findlay’s season a year ago in the conference tournament, bows out at 29-5 overall.
Sunday’s tussle was the fifth in the past three years against the Bulldogs with every one coming down to the final seconds.
The Oilers lost both last season at the buzzer before besting Ferris State on the road in overtime this season.
“It’s a tremendous rivalry with a lot of great games and a lot of great players,” Ernst said. “It does feel good to have some redemption.
“They’re big, athletic; they’re deep. They’re a lot of things we’re not. What we have is a lot of heart on this team, and we’ve got a lot of guys that rise to the occasion.”
The game played out exactly how Ernst expected.
Taren Sullivan scored the last six UF points to finish with a game-high 22. He played 39 minutes and tallied eight rebounds, two assists, three steals and two blocks.
He hit a pair of free throws for the last points of the game with 9.7 seconds remaining, ensuring Ferris State couldn’t force overtime.
Teammate and co-first team all-GLIAC guard Martyce Kimbrough went all 40 minutes, chipping in 21 points.
The junior and UF’s leading scorer rebounded from a 3-for-17 shooting performance in the tourney opener against Southern Indiana to hit 9 of 20 and 2 of 5 from downtown.
“We all knew he was due to have another night,” Ernst said of Kimbrough who averages 19.5 points per game.
Ferris State led 40-39 at halftime when 6-foot-10 Zach Hankins converted a tip-in at the buzzer.
Points suddenly became harder to come by in the next 20 minutes.
The early minutes of the second half featured four ties and two lead changes before Findlay found some cushion when Sullivan and Kimbrough hit back-to-back jumpers.
The spurt gave UF a 51-47 leads with 13:49 to go and the Oilers stayed a few possessions ahead until the final six minutes.
They built a nine-point lead with 3:25 to go but three straight Ferris State baskets cut it to 64-61 in the final minute. Sullivan responded with a bucket just before the shot-clock ended.
“The tempo we wanted to have in the first half was more like the one we had in the second half,” Ernst said. “We did not want to get in a running game with these guys. We knew that would not benefit us.”
Kimbrough also snatched a career-high six rebounds as a part of a strong team commitment to rebounding.
Ferris State topped the GLIAC at 40.5 rebounds per game and a plus-five margin. Whenever the Bulldogs put up a shot, Ernst needed all five guys around the rim.
UF turned the tables Sunday with a 41-36 edge on the boards.
All eight players recorded multiple boards for the Oilers. Five had at least five rebounds, including four starters.
Ernst said the effort on the glass was a result of keeping his guards near the paint. He didn’t want to get in a running game with Ferris State, thus the effort on the glass was important.
Findlay overcame a 44-35 deficit against USI in the first round, but Ernst couldn’t chance losing another rebounding battle, citing 70 percent of Ferris State’s points coming from offensive rebounds and in transition.
Tyler Stern-Tucker chipped in 13 points and five rebounds.
Redshirt freshman Aaron Overhiser had seven points and five rebounds off the bench.
Collectively, the Bulldogs shot 39.4 percent (26 for 66), 7 of 27 from 3-point range.
Hankins recorded his usual double-double of 17 points, 13 rebounds with five blocks. Peter Firlik and Drew Cushingberry added 14 and 12 points, both shooting 5 of 13 from the field.
“Our defensive effort in the second half was one you want, if there is such a thing, as frame it,” Ernst said. “This was a team that averages nearly 90 points per game (86.7). They had 10 conference games where they scored 100 or more points.
“We took away almost every option they had. Most of the shots they got in the last 10 minutes were very very difficult shots.”
NOTES: In Saturday’s regional quarterfinal, Stern-Tucker hit a layup with five seconds remaining as UF defeated No. 16-ranked Southern Indiana 70-69.
Sullivan led the Oilers with 24 points and 14 rebounds. Stern-Tucker finished with 17 points and three assists, while Kimbrough scored 10 points with six rebounds.
Sullivan 8-18 4-6 22, Stern-Tucker 5-8 1-4 13, R. Smith 0-0 0-0 0, Kimbrough 9-20 1-2 21, Kahlig 1-5 1-1 3, Singleton 1-1 0-0 2, T. Smith 0-4 0-0 0, Overhiser 3-4 0-0 7. TOTALS: 27-60 7-13–68.
FERRIS STATE (28-5)
King 3-6 0-0 9, Ruff 2-9 0-0 4, Firlik 5-13 1-1 12, Hankins 8-12 1-1 17, Cushingberry 5-13 2-2 14, Hughes 1-6 0-0 3, Mayfield 2-3 0-0 4, Williams 0-2 0-0 0, Meacham 0-1 0-0 0, Walker 0-1 0-0 0. TOTALS: 26-66 4-4–63.
3-POINT GOALS: Findlay 7-21 (Sullivan 2-7, Stern-Tucker 2-3, Kimbrough 2-5, Kahlig 0-3, T. Smith 0-2, Overhiser 1-1); Ferris State 7-27 (King 3-6, Ruff 0-5, Firlik 1-3, Cushingberry 2-6, Hughes 1-3, Williams 0-2, Meacham 0-1, Walker 0-1).
REBOUNDS: Findlay 41 (Sullivan 8, R. Smith 7, Kimbrough 6); Ferris State 36 (Hankins 13).
ASSISTS: Findlay 9 (Kahlig 3); Ferris State 11 (Cushingberry 4).
STEALS: Findlay 5 (Sullivan 3); Ferris State 5.
BLOCKS: Findlay 2 (Sullivan 2); Ferris State 7 (Hankins 5).
TURNOVERS: Findlay 12, Ferris State 9.
TOTAL FOULS: Findlay 9, Ferris State 14.
FOULED OUT: None.
HALFTIME: Ferris State, 40-39.