BLOOMINGTON — Thanks to a talented and trailblazing Illinois Wesleyan basketball team from the previous season, the 1996-97 Titans knew the way to Salem, Va.
Still, navigating a return trip to the NCAA Division III Final Four seemed like an improbable journey.
“It was such a great experience. We all really wanted to come back,” said forward Bryan Crabtree said. “Coach (Dennie) Bridges and I joked on the plane we were going to make it back. But realistically, I think both of us thought it wasn’t going to happen.”
A 1995-96 IWU contingent featuring Chris Simich, Jon Litwiller, T.J. Posey, Brady Knight and Scott Peterson suffered a heartbreaking 79-77 national semifinal loss to Rowan before claiming third place the next day.
Yet Crabtree, who contributed 17.8 points per game to the Titans' initial Final Four adventure, was the only returnee among that squad’s top six scorers.
“I remember waiting for the plane in Roanoke (Va.) and the younger players saying ‘wasn’t that fun, we’re going to come back next year,'” Bridges said. “I remember thinking, 'do you realize who all is graduating?'”
Yet building around a superstar in Crabtree, the '96-97 Titans bonded quickly, filled roles like caulk around a window and did earn that return trip to Salem. The resulting national championship and its 20th anniversary will be celebrated at halftime of Saturday’s 7 p.m. Wesleyan game against Carroll at Shirk Center.
“The biggest thing for us was chemistry. We worked well together and had a lot of fun,” said Crabtree, who runs Crabtree Financial Services in Normal after playing seven years of professional basketball in Europe. “It just seemed to work.”
At the other end of the experience spectrum was freshman guard Korey Coon, an unassuming blonde from East Peoria who could have passed for a high school sophomore when he enrolled at Wesleyan in '96.
No one knew it at the time, but two of the top six scorers in IWU history were on the same team for that one magical season.
“We had the best player in the country in Bryan Crabtree,” Bridges said, “and the best freshman in the country in Korey Coon.”
After Crabtree, Coon and 6-foot-9 junior Andy Boyden, Bridges was forced to dip extensively into a highly successful junior varsity group from the previous season.
The veteran IWU coach, who was entering the 32nd season of an illustrious 36-year career, pulled up juniors Brent Niebrugge, Matt Hoder and John Baines and sophomore Nathan Hubbard. Freshman guard Jason Osborn also earned early playing time.
“It was a little concerning. A lot of us hadn’t played a lot of minutes,” said Niebrugge, who lives in Arlington Heights and works in cyber security software sales. “But that was counterbalanced by the fact we saw how they accomplished it. That helped make it more of an achievable goal.”
The new-look Titans exhibited the glow of winners immediately, reeling off 15 straight victories before the first blemish arrived in the form of an 81-72 loss to North Central.
“We got to 9-0, 10-0 and started to realize we had a pretty good team,” said Coon, who averaged 10.1 points as a freshman and connected on more than half (49 of 97) of his shots from 3-point range.
“We had a superstar (Crabtree) and everyone else very quickly figured out what their role was. Even within a game, we could figure out how that role might change.”
A 23-2 regular season earned the Titans a chance to go from Shirk to Salem in the NCAA Tournament. Yet the road nearly hit a dead end in the second round when Rose-Hulman visited Bloomington.
A defensively rugged team, the Engineers had IWU down 53-52 in the final seconds.
“I set up a play to get the ball in Bryan Crabtree’s hands and let him create a shot,” Bridges said. “I was hoping he would get a better shot than he did.”
Crabtree was trapped on the baseline with the clock closing in on zero. The 6-7 senior lofted a shot over the back of the backboard that found its mark for the breathtaking Titan triumph.
“Every championship overcomes some adversity,” said Coon, who resides in Raleigh, N.C., and is a general manager for Caterpillar. “Bryan shot it over the backboard, and I was standing out behind the 3-point line. I joked with him afterward I was open.”
The next weekend’s sectional was more coronation than competition. Wesleyan blasted Bridgewater, 87-60, and Methodist, 95-63, to punch its return ticket to the Salem Civic Center.
“There were not too many people in Salem the year before who thought we were going to make this trip again in 12 months,” said Hoder, an English teacher at Normal West High School who played exclusively junior varsity as a sophomore and paid his own way to Salem in '96.
“There were no egos. We all knew Bryan was an All-American. We liked each other and roles were very clearly defined.”
The Titans suffered a potentially devastating blow before the Final Four started. Boyden, who averaged 12.8 points and 3.8 rebounds, was diagnosed with mononucleosis and would not play.
That absence placed an additional burden on the shoulders of Niebrugge, Hoder and Baines, now the head coach at College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin rival Elmhurst.
Yet in the national semifinals, IWU’s Salem experience wasn’t paying off early. Alvernia scored the first 14 points and led by 11 in the second half before the Titans scratched out an 85-82 win.
“Luckily, we started handling their pressure a little bit,” Hubbard said. “We were fortunate to win that one.”
The semifinal hurdle conquered, the Titans blitzed Nebraska Wesleyan in the next evening’s title game with torrid first-half shooting. IWU hit 18 of 27 shots over the first 20 minutes, constructed a lead as large as 40-17 and carried a 49-30 bulge into halftime.
“You walked to the locker room thrilled, but at the same time scared to death,” said Bridges. “We knew Nebraska Wesleyan was a really explosive team.”
As feared, Nebraska Wesleyan did indeed detonate in the second half. The Plainsmen’s relentless barrage featured 13 second-half 3-pointers. A once comfortable Wesleyan cushion was trimmed to 70-69 with 6:43 remaining.
Niebrugge, who at 6-4 sported devilish post moves and disdained shooting from the perimeter, scored off an inbounds pass before Nebraska Wesleyan had two 3-point tries to tie but missed both. Hubbard then swished a monumental trey at the 3:37 mark to boost the Titans’ lead back to six.
“I started that year about 2 for 100 (shooting), but Coach Bridges said the only time I was coming out was if I started passing up shots. And I don’t like to come out,” said Hubbard, a Country Financial agent in Champaign. “I had to shoot it and lucky for me it went in. I watch the tape and I’m jumping around like an idiot.
“I’ve watched that game 100 to 150 times, and I still get nervous. Maybe we should have played some defense the second half because we didn’t play much.”
The second half was indeed a matter of survival for the Titans, who eventually prevailed, 89-86.
Hoder, who left the Alvernia game in the first half after a stray elbow to the head opened up a cut that required stitches, broke his foot against Nebraska Wesleyan. With Boyden and Hoder already sidelined, Baines fouled out in the second half.
“We were really short-handed when John fouled out,” Bridges said. “I turned to Matt Mann off the bench. The game was on the line and he made a great defensive play. I imagine what ran through Matt’s mind. He had not played a competitive varsity minute in his life.”
Crabtree, Niebrugge, Coon and Hubbard all played at least 34 of a possible 40 minutes in the championship tilt. Crabtree scored 28 points, Niebrugge registered 25 points and 11 rebounds, Coon added 17 points and Hubbard 10.
“I never really sensed we were panicking. We just kept on grinding,” said Niebrugge. “They were a great team. We expected them to make a run.”
Crabtree and Coon were selected to the Final Four all-tournament team. Later named national Player of the Year, Crabtree finished with a scoring average of 22.6 and ranks third all-time in IWU scoring. Niebrugge averaged 12.9 points (and a team-high 6.7 rebounds) and Boyden 12.8.
“Wesleyan has such a tradition of success. There were teams loaded with talent that got knocked out by other good teams,” Hubbard said. “It’s certainly something we take pride in. We came together better and quicker than us or anybody thought we would.”
While the great Titans teams of the 1970s led by Jack Sikma were members of the NAIA and not the NCAA, IWU has made six trips to Salem and the Final Four. The '96-97 contingent is the only one to bring home the Walnut and Bronze signifying a national championship.
“It’s really hard to do. Through the years, you appreciate it even more,” said Coon. “The emotions of knowing you’re the very best team in the country at our level is pretty amazing.”