PORTSMOUTH — Less than 24 hours after securing the program’s first-ever NAIA National Championship, the Shawnee State University men’s basketball team touched down on Wednesday back in Scioto County — and back on SSU’s campus to a welcoming crowd.
Groups of fans lined up along Chillicothe Street in Downtown Portsmouth, while the majority of people awaited the team to exit its charter bus at the Verne Riffe Center for the Arts near the entrance to Waller Gymnasium.
Students, community figures, children and their families awaited the return of SSU’s first team National Champion since the famed 1998-99 women’s basketball championship team.
Several hundred people were allowed inside a socially-distant Waller Gymnasium to celebrate the program’s best season ever, culminating in a 31-2 record, 27 consecutive wins, and Tuesday night’s national championship victory inside Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City, Mo.
The Bears defeated Lewis-Clark State of Idaho 74-68 to capture the program’s first-ever national title.
Several figures addressed the assembled crowd, including emcees Steve Hayes and Chuck Greenslate of WNXT radio.
After Hayes and Greenslate introduced each player and coach from the championship team, SSU Director of Athletics Jeff Hamilton, SSU President Jeff Bauer and Vice President Eric Braun briefly recognized the team for its accomplishments and for representing the university on the biggest stage.
“You guys have my congratulations,” Hamilton said. “These memories will stick for a lifetime. The friendships that we’ve made, the obstacles you’ve overcome to achieve this are incredible.”
“You made NAIA history, you made Shawnee State history, and very soon, we’ll move this banner over (pointing to women’s championship banner) and put this team up a banner of their own,” Bauer said.
Robin Hagen-Smith — the Hall of Fame SSU women’s coach who guided the 1998-99 team — was in attendance at the celebration, as she helped guide SSU to its first and only team national championship prior to this season.
After interviews with Jakiel Wells, James Jones and E.J. Onu conducted by Greenslate, SSU head coach DeLano Thomas —the 2020-21 NAIA Coach of the Year — addressed the crowd and reflected upon SSU’s journey to achieve its ultimate goal: Win the final game of the season.
Jones was named the NAIA National Tournament’s Most Valuable Player.
“After the game the other night, these guys were waiting on my speech, but I didn’t have any speech,” Thomas said. “These guys did exactly what we talked about, and there’s no speech after that. Our goal was to win that last game, and we did. I’m proud of you guys.”
*Note: The Portsmouth Daily Times will have a special section to celebrate SSU’s NAIA National Championship as part of our Wednesday, March 31 print edition. Visit the “Portsmouth Daily Times” Facebook page for additional coverage.*
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