By Murray Evans
WINONA LAKE, Ind. (March 15, 2013) – Almost every kid who picks up a basketball dreams of someday competing for a national title and Oklahoma Christian’s players and coaches are no exception.
The Eagles have the good fortune of having the opportunity to live that dream Saturday afternoon when they face Shorter (Ga.) for the National Christian College Athletic Association championship at Orthopaedic Capital Center. Tipoff is scheduled for 1 p.m. Central time.
“The last game, playing for a national championship – you can’t ask for anything better than that,” OC senior guard Brandon Troutman said. “At the beginning of the season, that’s what you’re working toward, but at the same, you don’t understand it until you get there.”
A week ago, OC (19-11) thought its season might be over after a loss to Mid-America Christian in the NCCAA Central Region semifinals. Given new life with an at-large berth to the national tournament, the third-seeded Eagles have proved their mettle with wins over Spring Arbor (Mich.) and Cedarville (Ohio) to advance to the first national-title game in the program’s history.
“That feeling we had after we lost to Mid-America, it was just a horrible feeling,” OC senior swingman Devan White said. “I thought it was over for myself, for Brandon, for Will (Reinke), for everybody else. The fact we had a second chance, we are more motivated. We know that we’re hungry and we know that we can win. Now we have the opportunity right in front of us and it’s time to go take care of business.”
If there’s any doubt the NCCAA tournament is now on the same competitive level as its NAIA counterpart, consider that on the opposite side will be Shorter (20-11), which like OC is in the NCAA Division II membership process and joined the NCCAA this academic year. Shorter reached the NAIA Division I semifinals last season, losing to the same team – Concordia (Calif.) – that narrowly beat OC in that tournament’s opening round.
The fifth-seeded Hawks beat Mid-America Christian 101-89 and top-seeded Fresno Pacific (Calif.) 104-95 to advance to the NCCAA title game.
“We’ve got our hands full,” OC coach Dan Hays said. “They’re a good team. We look forward to the challenge. We saw them last year in Kansas City. We both got eliminated by the same team, just in different rounds. This is the only time all year long that we’ve had a chance to play for something and we got a new lease on life with the at-large. We’ve beaten two good teams and it’s going to take beating a third good team to get it done.”
Shorter is an up-tempo team – as evidenced by breaking the 100-point barrier in their first two tournament games – and the Hawks have five players with double-figure scoring averages. Forward Anthony Banks entered the tournament averaging 15.3 points and 7.6 rebounds per game, while 6-foot-5 guard Walter Hill came in averaging 14.9 points and 6.2 rebounds.
Shorter’s point guard, Dedric Ware, has been on a recent roll, scoring 27 points in the regional title game, then 25 in the win over Fresno Pacific. Another guard, Kenny Leverette, recorded a double-double against Fresno Pacific with 14 points and 12 rebounds and has a reputation as a top-notch defender.
“They like to get up and down the court,” White said. “They can all shoot the ball. They’re all athletic. They all like to run.”
OC has had its share of impressive performers in the tournament. Senior center Will Reinke has recorded a pair of double-doubles and is 17-of-26 from the field in the Eagles’ two games. Point guard Kendre Talley had nine assists in the win over Spring Arbor and went 10-of-10 from the free-throw line in the final 1:20 against Cedarville.
Nick Tate, Willie Harper, Troutman, Derek Johnson, White, Eric Randall and Josh Faurot all have hit big baskets or made hustle plays – or both – at key times during the Eagles’ tournament run.
“Our team is very mentally tough,” Troutman said. “We never get too high on ourselves and we never get too low. We just keep grinding and keep working. I think that’s our strength, really.”
OC’s players are aware of the Eagles’ star-crossed history when it comes to postseason basketball. In 11 trips to the NAIA tournament, the Eagles ended up playing either the eventual champion or runner-up in the first or second round seven times, including last season. Rarely, if ever, did the Eagles catch a postseason break.
But the Eagles have turned into postseason warriors, winning last year’s Sooner Athletic Conference tournament title as a seventh seed and now reaching the NCCAA title game, putting longtime coach Dan Hays – who recorded his 700th career win against Spring Arbor – one win away from another major career milestone.
“It’s a one-day prep,” Hays said. “Nobody has the advantage. I’m sure they’ve watched us and we’ve certainly watched them, twice. We’re ready for it.”
White said the Eagles are focused on the prize and not caught up in the hoopla surrounding the game.
“It’s exciting that we’re in the national championship game, but it’s not over yet,” he said. “We came here to win one.”