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St. Vincent playing underdog role at NCAA tournament

| Thursday, March 6, 2014, 10:51 p.m.
Eric Schmadel | Tribune-Review
Saint Vincent's Dillon Stith puts back an offensive rebound between Washington & Jefferson's Ben Cecchini, left, and Connor Deckard during a playoff game Feb. 21, 2013.

The St. Vincent men's basketball team will find itself in an unusual role this weekend — the underdog.

After winning a second straight Presidents' Athletic Conference championship, St. Vincent (22-6) now returns to the NCAA Division III tournament, traveling to play the College of Wooster — ranked No. 8 in D3hoops.com's final regular-season poll — in Ohio at 7:30 p.m. Friday.

“It's kind of a tough situation because they don't give our conference a lot of respect when it comes to tournament seeding,” St. Vincent senior Dillon Stith said. “Last year they probably gave us the toughest game in our region.”

Wooster is one of the toughest places for visiting teams to play, boasting the second-highest regular attendance for Division III home games, Stith said.

In recent years, the PAC has not been known as a strong basketball conference, comprised mostly of private liberal arts schools. The Bearcats are helping to change that perception, and a win over Wooster would be a big step in that direction.

“We're not the old PAC. PAC basketball is very good now,” St. Vincent coach D.P. Harris said. “We've made a difference in this league, and we're changing the culture of the fans that come to the game.”

At the start of the season, Harris said other teams in the PAC thought the Bearcats were going to be good. Harris figured his team would be good around January and February.

He was mostly right.

Although the Bearcats started February with a 3-4 record, they won their last two games in the month and the first in March to sweep through the playoffs and repeat as PAC champions.

“A lot of the guys had our heads down walking around campus,” Stith said. “We had a team meeting after the senior night loss to Bethany and our coach said, ‘I don't know what you need to get your mojo back, but we're still defending conference champions.' ”

Stith, a 6-foot-5 forward, was named PAC Player of the Year on Tuesday after averaging 19.8 points and 10.3 rebounds per game, including a 50-point performance in a 124-121 quadruple overtime loss to Thiel on Feb. 5, setting St. Vincent's record for points in a game.

“I've known him since he was 6 years old, so it's huge to see him grow and become the player that he is today,” Harris said. “I don't think I've ever coached a player that has put up those kinds of numbers.”

St. Vincent senior guard Isaac Turner finished second in the voting and averaged 21.6 points to lead the Bearcats.

With help from the coaching staff, St. Vincent players have been preparing for their test against Wooster. The Fighting Scots pose a unique challenge as a guard-oriented team, led by North Coast Athletic Conference Player of the Year Doug Thorpe and first-team all-NCAC guard Xavier Brown.

St. Vincent sees the game as an opportunity to show off the PAC's player of the year.

“They kind of have a couple Isaac Turners in a way,” Stith said. “But they're little on the forward side, and that's right up me and (junior forward Sean Kett)'s alley.”

“It's a big game, and that's when the biggest players step up.”

Gary Horvath is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at ghorvath@tribweb.com.

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