Rock Island, Ill. – The Thunder men’s basketball held off a furious second half rally but came away with an 86-81 victory at No. 2-ranked Augustana on Wednesday night. The victory snapped a six-game winning streak by the Vikings over the Thunder with five of those six wins coming by four points or less and the last three all coming by just two points. With the win, Wheaton takes sole possession of first place in the CCIW, improving to 11-3 overall and 5-1 in conference play. The Vikings dropped their second straight game in falling to 11-3 and 3-2 in the CCIW. Wheaton will continue its three-game road trip on Saturday when the Thunder travel to Naperville to take on North Central at 7 p.m.
Wheaton started the game slow with a shooting percentage in the teens, but finished the game shooting 41.8% (23-55) from the field and 44.4% (12-27) from the three-point line. Wheaton shot 37 free throws in a whistle-plagued game, making 28 of them for a 75.7% clip. Augustana charged in the second half, shooting 59.3% from the field in the final 20 minutes to finish at 44.1% (26-59) for the game. The Vikings struggled from outside, shooting just 25% (4-16) from the three-point line. Augustana made 25-of-35 free throw attempts to finish at 71.4%. The Vikings narrowly won the rebounding battle 39-35.
“We’ve played them really evenly over the past decade.” head coach Mike Schauer noted of his team’s recent games against the Vikings. “We have a very mature and experienced team, especially after the Whitworth win, and we just expected to be in a position to win the game.”
Early in the second half, Wheaton looked like it might turn the game into a rout when the Thunder opened the half on a 14-5 run that included nine straight points to take its biggest lead of the night at 53-38 onKobe Eichelberger’s three-pointer with 14:48 to play. Augustana proved it was up to the task, answering with a 20-8 run over the next six minutes to pull within 61-58 on Nolan Ebel’s three-pointer with 9:08 to play.
The game stayed within two possessions over the next five minutes with both teams trading punches.Aston Francis slowed the Viking momentum with a pair of free throws at the 8:47 mark only to have Augustana pull back within three on the ensuing possession. Zack Kvam stepped up with a three-pointer to make it 66-60 but the Vikings chipped away at the free throw line, cutting the lead to 66-64 before Francis again hit a pair of free throws. Francis then answered again with a three-pointer with 4:08 to play to give Wheaton a 75-68 lead.
Augustana widdled the lead down to one possession again when Micah Martin beat the shot clock with a lay-up with 1:23 left in the game, cutting Wheaton’s lead to 80-78. Francis would then deliver the dagger on the following possession. With the shot clock running down, Francis drove from the left wing, spun to the free throw line, and then found just enough room to get a shot off with a step-back three-pointer from the top of the key with just 55 seconds left. The Vikings cut the lead down to three again with 31 seconds left by Ricky Samuelson iced the win with a two free throws with 15 seconds left.
“It was an odd second half with all the foul calls. Fortunately we made some free throws and Aston hit a huge three for us with about a minute left.” said Schauer. “We just kept playing and similar to the Whitworth game, we got to the foul line and just made the plays we need to make down the stretch.”
Despite a slow start, Francis was the key to the crucial first half stretch that saw the Thunder take control of the game. Trailing 14-8 at the midway point of the half, Francis got on the scoresheet with a pair of free throws that started a quick six-point spurt that saw Wheaton tie the game at 14 on a Luke Peters lay-up. Francis then gave Wheaton the lead several minutes later with the first of his eight three-pointers. The Vikings answered with a three but Ricky Samuelson gave Wheaton the lead for good with a three-pointer and Francis followed with another three to make it 25-20 with 6:26 left in the half. Five unanswered points late in the half had the Vikings back within three in the closing seconds of the half but Francis beat the clock with his fourth three-pointer of the half to give Wheaton the 39-33 halftime edge.
“He’s just a really hard kid to keep from scoring the basketball because he makes shots that no one else would take. He makes it really challenging to guard him because it’s so different from other players.” Schauer said of Francis. “He has really bought in on the defensive end of the floor as well, leading us with seven rebounds tonight, and has really helped our team take a big step forward.”
Francis finished the game with a game-high 40 points, marking the third time this season that he has posted a 40-point game, and the second time in the last week. Kobe Eichelberger finished with 15 points and Ricky Samuelson added 14 points and grabbed seven rebounds. Luke Peters led all players with seven assists to go with five points and five rebounds. Nolan Ebel led the Vikings with 19 points (14 in the second half) and six rebounds. Ebel was joined in double figures by Dylan Sortillo with 17 points and Andy McLaughlin with 13 points.
Wheaton will play the second of three straight road games on Saturday, when the Thunder travel to North Central to face the Cardinals (10-4, 4-2 CCIW) at 7 PM.
Noteworthy: Aston Francis is just the second player in program history to have three or more 40-point games in his career. He trails only Tom Dykstra (’70), who scored 40 or more points five times in his career. With his eight three-pointers tonight, Francis moved past Andrew Jahns (152, 2007-11) into 10th place on Wheaton’s career three-point list with 157 career made three-pointers.