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Oberlin loses district final to Northwestern

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Oberlin’s hopes at a repeat visit to the Division III Sweet Sixteen were dashed March 10 by No. 2 Northwestern as the Phoenix fell, 66-51, in a disheartening loss that left both players and coaches stunned.

On a night when the ball just couldn’t seem to find the basket, first-seeded Oberlin was doomed by yet another dreaded slow start the Phoenix have tried so desperately to stay away from all season, and after Northwestern jumped out to a 21-7 first-quarter lead, it was a game of catch-up for the next 24 minutes.

“That’s been our Achilles heel, starting off slow,” Oberlin coach Kurt Russell said. “Northwestern jumped on us and that was our fear coming into the game, that if we started off slow it would be difficult for us to come back against a very quality ball club. That’s what happened. We tried to claw our way back in, but we just shot the ball poorly tonight.”

The Phoenix shot 19 of 59 from the field, and were 12 of 26 from the free throw line. The more shots missed, the more disconnected the Oberlin offense became, and the spark that has gotten the Phoenix over the hump in the past never materialized.

“We couldn’t score anything tonight,” Russell said. “We missed a lot of free throws, a lot of layups, and it was just one of those games where it just spiraled down on the offensive end.

“We tried to claw back, we cut it to seven, and I thought our defense could’ve picked it up and got some easy transition, but it never happened.”

Last season, Oberlin downed Northwestern, 74-69, in the district semifinals, but the Huskies came prepared in the second go-round. Northwestern coach Mark Alberts said after last season’s zone defense failed against the Phoenix, he knew he had to go back to the drawing board.

This time, the Huskies strictly played man-to-man and forced Oberlin into bad shot after bad shot.

“We knew what kind of team Oberlin was,” Alberts said. “We knew what kind of team they were. They’ve done it all year. I’ve seen them quite a few times this year and we hoped we’d have a chance to play them, and we knew they would never give up. They were down 13 and still calling timeouts, still pressing us, still getting after it, and we just told our guys, ‘You can’t relax against (Oberlin) because they play at that high level the whole time.”

In his last career game wearing an Oberlin uniform, Donald Johnson shined for the Phoenix. The senior scored 23 points despite pressure from Northwestern’s Derek Koch, a 6-foot-9 Bowling Green commit, and Alberts said though some teams may overlook the 6-foot-4 Johnson, he wasn’t going to let his team make that mistake.

“Donald Johnson, we knew he could make perimeter shots, and let me tell you something, the shots he made tonight, he made some great ones,” Alberts said. “I think people don’t realize how good he is, but we knew he could shoot the 15-footer. … We knew how good he is.”

“He played very well, he handled himself well, and I’d take Donald over anyone,” Russell added. “I don’t want to be biased, but I just think he’s a marvelous player, a marvelous person, and I couldn’t say more. I think he was the only one who was making little shots tonight. The rest of the players just weren’t on.”

Johnson did everything he could to rally his team, but said in the end, missing so many shots on such a big stage rattled him and his teammates to the point of no return.

“I don’t think it was nerves,” Johnson said. “I think we were good, we were ready, everyone was feeling good coming in. … I think we started to feel a little shook just from being down and how big of a game it was, but I think we kept our cool the whole time and we were positive we could come back till the end. I’m just proud of my guys, playing hard till the end.”

Oberlin finishes its season 19-6, and Russell said though they didn’t accomplish what they set out to do at the start of the season, this group has been instrumental in building a quality program that sets higher and higher expectations each year.

“I’m just proud of them,” Russell said. “I’m going to miss these boys. Most of them played as freshmen, and freshman and sophomore year we took some lumps. We knew that it would be a process, and the kids really stuck with the program and by their junior year, they did some pretty good things, and I thought this year we did some pretty good things. We didn’t accomplish our goals, but I’m still proud of them.

“We’re just trying to be better each and every day and I thought the kids really played hard this year. We just struggled tonight and it was one of those nights that when you struggle in the district finals, you’re not going to win. Hopefully we can be recognized as a quality program and hopefully going forward we can do a little bit better.”

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