Bryson, Warhawks hope to repeat magic of 2012
An uncertain ceiling to start the season. A stumble in the conference tournament. A regroup that led to a Final Four appearance in Salem, Va.
The parallels between 2012 and 2014 aren't lost on UW-Whitewater guard Eric Bryson.
UW-Whitewater faces Illinois Wesleyan in a national semifinal game tonight at 5 p.m. CT. Williams and Amherst play in the other semifinal, with the winners meeting in the title game Saturday.
“It's a great experience ending out your senior year on a high note,” Bryson said before the team set out on the road trip. “When we were out there two years ago, it was a crazy experience. I'm glad I get to do it with a new bunch of guys.”
No Final Four run is ever the same, but this one doesn't come without its similarities to Whitewater's two years ago.
Bryson said reaching this point was a goal set forth by the Warhawks before the season began, but he admitted he didn't know if it was attainable.
“I never thought we'd make it this far, to tell you the truth,” Bryson said. “But as the season went on, you kind of just saw all the guys coming together.”
The team's first rude awakening came in the first of three meetings with UW-Stevens Point. Ranked No. 1 in the nation for much of the year, the Pointers topped the Warhawks 79-67 on Dec. 11.
Whitewater won nine straight and 13 of 14 games following the loss, including an 81-76 victory over Stevens Point in the regular-season rematch. It came with head coach Pat Miller away from the team following a neck surgery.
That victory showed the Warhawks that they could compete with the best teams in the country.
“I felt like we had a group that allowed us to match up differently with teams,” Miller said. “We can play bigger. We can play smaller. We have very good quickness.
“Going into the year, we were very concerned about rebounding. We've rebounded very well as a team. As they've progressed, they've just continued to get better, continued to work, the chemistry became tighter.”
But that was shaken in the finals of the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference tournament.
Faced with yet another meeting with Stevens Point, Whitewater lost by 17.
“You're on a high streak and you think you're a really, really good team, and you just get hit in the face,” Bryson said. “It's a tough loss to take.”
“It was the same thing in 2012,” Miller said. “People were unhappy and frustrated. I think it actually worked as a positive. I don't know if you want to be going into the tournament on a 10-game win streak, cutting down nets at the conference tournament.
“I think it's been a good dynamic for us both years.”
Whitewater has rattled off four straight victories and now takes on an Illinois Wesleyan team it knows well. The Warhawks faced the same team in a nonconference game each of the past two seasons, winning both times.
“It's going to be critical we defend the 3-point line,” Miller said. “I think it'll be critical, offensively, that we get the ball spread, and I think we'll have a quickness advantage.
“I think it's a great Final Four. It's four teams that have won national championships, good programs, and a lot of tradition. It'll be big test.”
It's a test that Whitewater passed two years ago.
Now the Warhawks hope it ends with another carbon copy of 2012 on Saturday night—with a ladder, a pair of scissors, a net and a national championship.