This pack isn't back College basketball: Wisconsin-Green Bay's blue-collar team wins over Packers fans but fails in its bid to return to the NCAA tournament.

March Madness

March 04, 1998|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

GREEN BAY, WIS. — Staff writer Don Markus continues the March Madness Tour that will take him to eight conference tournaments in eight days.

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- There is the tradition, one started by a legendary coach who later moved to a bigger college basketball program and two players who graduated to the NBA. There is the love affair between this team and this town.

The Packers are not the only team in a place called "Titletown."

The Phoenix of Wisconsin-Green Bay has its own niche here. Or is that Nitschke? "When the team is playing good basketball, people around here can really embrace us," said Wisconsin-Green Bay coach Mike Heideman, who worked nine years under Dick Bennett and became the head coach when Bennett moved up to the University of Wisconsin three years ago.

They embraced these fourth-seeded underdogs last night, 5,368 them filling the Brown County Arena as if it were Lambeau Field with a roof. The building sits on Lombardi Avenue, right across from the NFL's most venerated stadium and right next door to the Packer Hall of Fame.

But, like the beloved Packers in January's Super Bowl, the Phoenix couldn't finish its own leap into this year's NCAA tournament.

With a disappointing 70-51 defeat to third-seeded Butler in the championship game of the Midwestern Collegiate Conference, Wisconsin-Green Bay failed to earn its fourth trip to March Madness in the past eight years. The Bulldogs made the tournament for the second straight year.

"We had a great opportunity having the game at home, but we didn't play very well," said senior guard Jeff Ohm, who played on NCAA tournament teams here as a freshman and sophomore. "It leaves a sour feeling in my mouth."

Unlike the Packers, the Phoenix wasn't given much of a shot in this tournament, a group of blue-collar players who will likely not follow former stars Tony Bennett and Jeff Nordgaard to the NBA and a 50-year-old coach who will certainly finish his career here.

Most of them grew up around the state, in places like Osh Kosh and Eau Claire, Waukesha and Wauwatosa, Mukwonago and Greendale. Two of them, Ohm and sophomore guard Ryan Borowicz, never left town after high school.

But the most interesting story is Wayne Walker, who came here after two years at a junior college in Quincy, Ill. And 17 years living in Antigua.

"We had him up here in April," Heideman recalled of the 6-foot-6 senior forward's recruiting visit. "I took him out to dinner and wouldn't you know, it started to snow. We said it was a rare thing."

It's been rare the past few months, the so-called frozen tundra barely white and certainly not frozen in this El Nino winter. The underground tunnels that connect the campus buildings across town at Wisconsin-Green Bay have barely been used, with the school's 5,000 students opting to trek outside.

"We're ready to get the golf clubs out," B. J. LaRue had said the day before the game. "It's strange, but I like it like this."

If the temperature hasn't exactly been hot -- yesterday it was a tepid 31 degrees -- LaRue was until last night. The sophomore guard, who averaged 10 points a game during the regular season, scored 47 in the first two tournament games by hitting 15 of 19 shots, including eight of 10 threes.

"When you're feeling it, you're feeling it, I guess," LaRue said after leading the Phoenix to a semifinal upset of top-seeded Detroit Sunday night.

It looked as if LaRue was feeling it again last night. But after hitting two of his first three shots, LaRue missed his next six shots and finished with just six points. The rest of his teammates went cold as well, falling behind by as many as 12 points late in the first half.

Just when it seemed as if the Phoenix would rise as it did in overcoming an early 14-point deficit to Detroit, albeit a bit later, by cutting Butler's lead to three with a little over nine minutes left, the comeback ended. A 12-0 run by the Bulldogs ended Wisconsin-Green Bay's season.

"You've got to give Butler a lot of credit," said Heideman, who was denied a chance at coaching in his second NCAA tournament. "They took the crowd out of the game. It's not the kind of game we wanted. We'll find out next season how much of a benefit this was to us."

Three starters and several key reserves will be back for Wisconsin-Green Bay next season, as will Heideman. He has lived his entire life in the state, coaching on the high school level and at Division III St. Norbert before joining Bennett's staff 12 years ago.

"I think Wisconsin is a good basketball state," said Heideman. jTC "The support has always been there for this program."

The school has been around for 30 years, its basketball program Division I since 1982. With seven postseason appearances in the past 10 years, no school of its size has had as much success anywhere in the country.

Ohm credits the Bennetts, father and son, as well as Nordgaard, who led the Phoenix to an NCAA tournament victory over California in 1994, with laying the foundation.

"We've been blessed with a great coach and a couple of great players who carried the program," said Ohm. "And now the tradition carries itself."

But like the Packers, the lifeblood can be found in its fans. Bennett, who was here 10 years, describes it as a "private love affair" between Green Bay and the Phoenix.

Frustrated most of the night with their team's performance, they showed their small-town roots in the end.

When Ohm fouled out with 27.3 seconds left, those who remained stood and cheered.

When the buzzer sounded, and the lights came on, they stood and cheered some more before emptying into the frosty winter night with only one thought on their minds.

Only six weeks until minicamp.

Pub Date: 3/04/98

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