Balenga leads Virginia Wesleyan to title

Updated: March 18, 2006, 9:13 PM ET
Associated Press

SALEM, Va. -- TonTon Balenga wasn't Virginia Wesleyan coach Dave Macedo's first choice to take the biggest shot of the season for the Marlins.

But when Plan A failed, Balenga was a more than willing Plan B.

Balenga made a 3-pointer from the top of the key with 2 seconds left Saturday, giving the Marlins their only lead of the game -- and the NCAA Division III national championship -- with a 59-56 victory against Wittenberg.

"It was just a great feeling," Balenga said after the shot held up, extending the Marlins' winning streak to 28 games and sweetening their first championship appearance.

Wittenberg coach Bill Brown said the critical play came down to solid defense and a great play by Balenga to suddenly get into the open.

"I thought we had it defended very well before the shot," Brown said. "All of a sudden he had some separation from our defensive players."

Balenga led the Marlins (30-3) with 22 points, and also had a steal and a layup with 1:57 left that drew Virginia Wesleyan even for the first time at 52-all.

Brandon Adair added 21 points for the Marlins, and was the intended shooter when the play was drawn up.

"When he wasn't open they wanted to swing the ball to me," Balenga, who is only a sophomore, said. "Tyler [Fantin] set the best screen I ever got in my life."

The Tigers (30-4) were led by Dane Borchers with 15 points, Daniel Russ with 14 and Kenny Brady with 13.

The Tigers took the lead back at 54-52 on two foul shots by Borchers with 1:30 remaining, but the Marlins tied it again on Adair's layup. Borchers then hit a layup, and Adair hit two foul shots to tie it at 56 with 49 seconds left.

The Tigers, in their fourth title game, never relinquished the lead until Balenga hit his game-winner after the Marlins gained possession on a turnover by Russ.

"I just hesitated and shuffled my feet," Russ said.

Wittenberg led 29-19 at halftime and matched that 10-point margin at 43-33 with 10:05 remaining, but then Balenga hit two layups in a row to begin the rally.

The Marlins also got back in it by being more aggressive after halftime.

"We got stops. We got in our transition game. We started getting some easy buckets," Macedo said. "That's when our energy level really picked up, and we were able to make it a ballgame."

The Tigers shot nearly 48 percent for the game. The Marlins finished at 43 percent, going 6-of-23 in the first half.

Earlier Saturday, Keelan Amelianovich scored 21 points to lead Illinois Wesleyan to a 71-68 victory over Amherst in the third-place game.


Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press