Photo by: Henoc Kivuye
For the first time in school history, the Eagles advanced to play in a national championship game – the road to the championship, however, was not an easy one.
Winning their last home game against University of Texas-Permian Basin, the Heartland conference season ended for the Eagles. Since this was the Eagles’ first year in the conference, they were not eligible for the Heartland post-season tournament.
The Eagles were ineligible to play in the NCAA Division II post-season tournaments as well, because this was their first year in the NCAA. Similar to other athletic programs, the Eagles basketball team headed for play in the National Christian College Athletic Association regional tournament.
This year, the regional tournament was held in Bartlesville, Okla. The Eagles earned the third seed in the tournament, which meant they would be matched up with the sixth seeded Central Christian University from McPherson, Kan.
The Eagles defeated the under-sized Central Christian team 73-62 to advance to the semi-finals of the NCCAA regional tournament. Senior Will Reinke led the Eagles with 18 points, while sophomore Willie Harper scored 13.
In the semi-final game, the Eagles faced familiar foe Mid-America Christian University. The Eagles had already beaten the Evangels by 24 points earlier in the year.
Evangel senior Charlie Shorter poured in 44 points for Mid-America Christian as they upset the Eagles in the semi final game.
With Mid-America Christian up two, Shorter missed a free throw with six seconds left, giving the Eagles a chance to win the game, but senior Brandon Troutman’s 3-point attempt came up short.
The NCCAA tournament is made up of the top eight teams in the country. Six teams are given automatic bids to the tournament – by winning their regional tournaments – and two at large bids are given. The Eagles thought the only way they would be eligible for the tournament was to win their central regional tournament.
Following the loss against Mid-America Christian, the Eagles assumed their season was over, and they would not receive a bid for the national championship.
Good news was in store for the Eagles though, as they discovered that their fate fell on whether a team from Indiana, Grace College, won or lost in their tournament.
Fate smiled on them as Grace College advanced in their tournament, opening up a spot for the Eagles in the national tournament.
The Eagles were given the third seed again, and would face Spring Arbor University from Michigan. Oklahoma Christian used a 17-0 second half run to take control of the game and never looked back, winning 83-59.
The win gave coach Dan Hays his 700th collegiate win; this milestone comes just a season after Hays broke the record for most wins as a head coach in the state of Oklahoma.
The semi-final game was not much more of a challenge for the Eagles as they cruised past Cedarville University from Ohio, 79-66.
The win set up a showdown with Shorter University from Georgia. Shorter is also in the transition period between the NAIA and the NCAA, forcing them to play in NCCAA post-season play. Though the Eagles were in a high-pressure situation, junior Kendre Talley saw the team taking the stress in stride.
“Being that we went to the NAIA national tournament the year before, it wasn’t too much of a difference,” Talley said. “I think the previous year made us more prepared and ready for the challenge.”
The Shorter Hawks cruised through the first two rounds in similar fashion to the Eagles.
The old coaching adage ‘offense sells tickets, defense wins games and rebounding wins championships’ held true for the Eagles as they found themselves one rebound away from winning a National Championship.
With 13 seconds left on the clock, Shorter trailed by three points. The Hawks inbounded the ball and ran a play, missing a three point shot but tapping out the offensive rebound. The Hawks would miss another 3-pointer, but the Eagles again failed to secure the rebound. Shorter’s Walter Hill received a pass and knocked down a 3-pointer at the buzzer, forcing the game into overtime.
With Oklahoma Christian’s All-American center Reinke fouled out, the Hawks immediately went inside to their All-American center Anthony Banks. Shorter jumped out to an early lead in the over-time, but the Eagles fought back.
A 3-pointer by junior Eric Randall pulled the Eagles within three points. Shorter missed two free throws, and senior Devan White had a good look at a game-tying 3-pointer, but it came up short. Oklahoma Christian’s season held a lot of memories for senior Brandon Troutman, and the closeness of the national championship game left the unpleasant taste of defeat to settle alongside his memorable recollections of a team that achieved the improbable.
“It felt like a bitter sweet year,” Troutman said. “We had some really good wins, we played great in front of our home crowd every game, and we played in a national championship game for the first time. Unfortunately it’s tough to swallow when you are one rebound away from winning a national championship instead of just saying you played for one.”
The Eagles finished the season 19-12. They will return two starters next year: juniors Derek Johnson and Talley.