After one of the most exciting games of the season, the Thunder are national contenders.
4.8 seconds left. Illinois Wesleyan is up 71-70. Wheaton has the ball.
Tyson Cruickshank, Wheaton’s star guard, is sprinting up the court, a defender on his hip, when he launches a desperate heave from well outside the three-point line. He misses. Looks like the game is—wait—HE GOT FOULED!
Wheaton students roar in approval at players on the court, and IWU coaches roar in disapproval at the officials. Cruickshank steps up to the free throw line with 0.4 seconds left. He needs to make one out of three to tie the game. If he makes two, Wheaton wins.
“I was pretty nervous,” Cruickshank, a first-year graduate student in his final year of NCAA eligibility, said of this moment after the game. “I got to pray for me before I took those shots to calm my nerves.”
He misses the first one. A few fans gasp, but most people keep holding their breath.
“Even though I missed the first one I didn’t really have many nerves at that point,” Cruickshank told me. “I had already seen the ball go through the hoop.”
He makes the second shot. The gym erupts—the game is tied! Then the sound hushes as quickly as it had swelled. Everybody is shushing their neighbor. One more to go. Everyone holds their breath again. Maybe the lack of sound helps the shooter keep calm. Cruickshank pounds the ball before getting into his shooting motion… releases…
He makes it! Wheaton wins 72-71. King Arena goes wild.
With Cruickshank’s game-winning free throw on the night of Jan. 20, the Wheaton men’s basketball team clinched their final win in a nine-game win streak, retained first place in the CCIW Conference, and set themselves up for a #7 ranking in the NCAA D3 standings the following week.
The team’s impressive win stands out among an already impressive season, but this victory is nothing out of the ordinary from Wheaton men’s basketball.
Cruickshank, who was recently named to the 2023 Bevo Francis Top 100 Player Watchlist—a list which encompasses players from NCAA Division III, NCAA Division II, NAIA, USCAA and NCCAA—has played on the Wheaton men’s basketball team since what athletes call the B.C. Era: Before-COVID.
His freshman year, in the 2018-19 season, Wheaton had one of its best seasons in history, reaching the NCAA Division III Final Four. In 2020-21, the team went 12-1, losing only its final game in a promising season mostly washed away by the pandemic. Last year, Wheaton finished with another 20+ win season, finding themselves in the “Sweet Sixteen” (the regional Division III semi-finals) before being ousted in the national championship tournament.
Now, Wheaton men’s basketball is poised for yet another historic year—with an unusual squad.
Because of COVID eligibility rules, the team has three graduate students on its roster. Two of these, Cruickshank and forward TJ Askew, are playing their “COVID year”—an extra year of athletic eligibility granted by the NCAA due to the pandemic. As a result, the team is older.
“It is a unique blend of experience for guys in the program,” said Head Coach Michael Schauer. “We have guys who have been in the program for four or more years. We also have guys playing in their first year in the program.”
Schauer said that this wide range of ages made the season uncertain at first. “That combination is not common,” he said. “But clearly it has worked pretty well.”
For Thunder men’s basketball, this season has the potential to exceed past success. Junior guard Nicholas Schiavello expressed his high standards for the squad: a conference championship and a run in the NCAA Tournament.
“We are going to continue to grow as a team and continue to get better,” said Schiavello. “We have a great group of guys that love playing together and playing the right way.”
The Thunder’s next game will be against Elmhurst University at Elmhurst on Feb. 18 at 7:00 p.m.