Ashland University's men's basketball team clinched a spot in the 2016 Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Tournament on Saturday (Feb. 6) afternoon.
It, of course, wasn't easy, as the No. 25-ranked Eagles earned yet another hard-fought victory, 65-63, over Malone at Kates Gymnasium. AU, with its sixth consecutive win, is 19-4 overall and 13-4 in the GLIAC, while the Pioneers are 5-17, 2-15.
Saturday's win was Ashland's 11th win of the campaign by eight points or less.
"There's days where you just can't shoot," said Ashland head coach John Ellenwood. "Today, I thought we had a lot of open looks we just didn't hit. That's something we have to work on, but, the bottom line is, the defense was there when it needed to be.
"Usually, when you look at years past, 12 (conference) wins isn't automatically in, but 13 is definitely in, and I'm really proud of our guys."
John Ellenwood Comments
Ashland has qualified for back-to-back GLIAC Tournaments for the first time since 2007-08.
The Eagles are one game behind first-place Findlay in the South Division, and 1½ games behind Saginaw Valley State for the overall conference lead with five regular-season contests remaining.
Junior point guard Adrian Cook led AU with 17 points on 7-of-11 shooting from the field, and added four rebounds and three assists.
"We're well-prepared for close games," Cook said. "We don't really panic in those situations anymore."
Junior forward Wendell Davis added 11 points, eight rebounds and four assists, and sophomore forward Marsalis Hamilton chipped in with 10 points, a team-high nine boards and four helpers. Davis has 1,207 career points, and is 15th all-time on AU's scoring list (33 points behind Angelo Edwards for 14th place).
Senior center Michael Hundley was a force again inside for the Eagles, posting five points, six rebounds and five blocks.
"This is my senior season, and the year's coming to an end," Hundley said, "so I'm just going out and playing as hard as I can. It's real fun. We all work really hard for it, so it's really fun."
The Eagles kept the Pioneers to 38.7-percent shooting and 30.0 percent from 3-point range. During the six-game winning streak, AU has allowed opponents to shoot 34.0 percent (136-for-400).
"We did a good job," Ellenwood said. "Our guys did a good job executing, especially in the last nine minutes. We dug in."
Ashland had 17 assists on 24 baskets, and has at least 13 assists in four of the last five contests.
The Eagles led 16-9 with 12:34 to go until halftime, but the Pioneers went on a 16-6 run to take a 25-22 lead. AU went back on top and led at the break, 34-32.
Trailing 51-49 with seven minutes to play, Ashland took the lead for good on a Hamilton triple. It was a nip-and-tuck affair down the stretch, however, and junior forward Torin Wetzel's only points of the contest – a corner 3-pointer with 14 seconds left – proved to be the difference.
Ashland will continue its three-game homestand on Thursday (Feb. 11) at 7:30 p.m. against the Oilers (17-5, 14-3) in a battle for first place in the South.
EAGLE NUGGETS: The Eagles have won 22 of their last 27 games (.815) at Kates Gymnasium…Ashland is 38-14 (.731) in the last two seasons, boasting the program's most wins in back-to-back years since 1998-99 and 1999-2000 (39) and its highest consecutive-season winning percentage since 1990-91 and 1991-92 (.797)…The Eagles are 5-3 against the Pioneers in conference play.
PLAY OF THE GAME: Eagles leading 54-53 with 2:30 remaining in the game, Boo Osborne gets fouled and the ball goes off the face of the defender and in the basket.