Pioneers host Mount Union Wednesday

It’s being called the “Battle in the Banjo.”

When Mount Union comes to Ban Johnson Arena Wednesday night to play Marietta College in an Ohio Athletic Conference tilt, there will be first place implications on the line.

The Purple Raiders currently sit at 14-2 in the OAC, giving them a one-game lead over the 13-3 Pioneers.

A win for Mount Union Wednesday would clinch the regular season OAC title as well as the top seed in the OAC Tournament. A Marietta victory would put the two teams in a tie with one game remaining for each squad. If both teams were to win Saturday, the tie-breaker is expected to come down to a coin flip to determine the No. 1 seed in the conference tourney.

Pioneers head coach Jon VanderWal is hoping his team can force that scenario.

“Right now our focus is on getting this win against Mount Union, but honestly, if (the OAC) came down to a coin toss I would be totally okay with that because it would mean we won these last two games,” he explained.

If Marietta’s last two games against the Purple Raiders are any indication, Wednesday night’s contest should be an instant classic.

Last year, Marietta hosted Mount Union for the OAC Tournament championship, with the Pios coming back from a 20-point second half deficit to win in overtime. Fast-forward to Jan. 15 of this season in Alliance and it was the Raiders who finished on top, edging Marietta 73-72.

“It’s gonna be two really good teams duking it out,” VanderWal said.

Mount Union owns the top-scoring offense in the OAC, averaging 87.3 points per game. The Purple Raiders’ attack is very balanced, with Cody Dillon scoring a team-high 13.3 per game, Jarrett Rufflin adding 13 and T.J. Gillespie averaging 12.7. Nate Jacubec has chipped in with 9.7 a game.

In the Jan. 15 game, Marietta did a good job of limiting Mount’s scoring.

“I thought we went up there and played really well defensively,” VanderWal said. “They’re the top scoring team in the league and we held them under their average.”

It was on the other end of the floor where VanderWal felt the Pioneers let the previous matchup get away. Marietta’s “offense was poor” and “the shot selection was not very good” according to VanderWal, who’s team shot 36.5 percent from the floor against the Raiders.

Still, the Pioneers were within striking distance till the final horn as Gillespie’s free throw with one second left proved to be the difference.

If Marietta can duplicate its defensive effort from last time but improve its offensive output, it should have the advantage.

Defensively, “we’ve got to get to their shooters and shut those guys down,” VanderWal said. Offensively, “we’ve got to handle whatever defense they throw at us.”

Marietta’s probable starters will be RaNeal Ewing (13.2 points per game), Brennan McKean (9.4), Luis Garcia (9.9), Andy Stegman (5) and Garrett Stephenson (9.4).

The Pioneers could also get a big boost from Andy Dollman, who returned from an elbow injury Saturday against Baldwin Wallace and is expected to expand his role against Mount Union.

“He progressed better than we expected,” said VanderWal, who originally thought Dollman might be done for the season.

“It was really beneficial for us to get 13 minutes out of him (against Baldwin Wallace.)”

Dollman was averaging 12.9 points per game before the setback.

Other key contributors off the bench for MC will be A.J. Davis (7.6 points per game), Eddy Grenert (7.4) and Keith Richardson (5.5).

Expect an electric atmosphere at the “Banjo” Wednesday night.

“We hope it’s a sold out crowd,” VanderWal said. “This is as big a regular season game as we’ve had here.”

Tip-off is scheduled for 7:30 p.m.