CRESTVIEW HILLS, Ky. — On Saturday, the Shawnee State University Bears found themselves in the true tournament basketball universe.
Competing in their first-ever NAIA National Tournament tilt, the Bears were the top-seeded squad in the Crestview Hills Bracket A, and were truly tested by some underdog Bears — the Golden Bears of West Virginia Tech.
However, and the Bears became the latest case in point inside Thomas More University’s Connor Convocation Center — you don’t need to make THAT many three-pointers in order to survive and advance.
That’s because while West Virginia Tech took a massive 30 three-point attempts and made good on half of those, the Bears only made one of their dozen tries — but Shawnee State still led for the game’s final 37 minutes and 22 seconds, and captured a 76-70 victory in the NAIA’s Opening Round to advance to this week’s Round of 16.
And, the whole goal of basketball in the mad month of March is simple: win and move on.
The Bears, in winning their 23rd consecutive contest, did just that — and raised their stellar season record to 27-2.
More importantly, in winning in its first-ever national tournament game, Shawnee State still plays on — and heads westward to Kansas City, Mo. for it’s “Sweet 16” bout against Bethel College on Thursday.
With Saturday’s six-point triumph, in which they trailed just 3-0 and 3-2 and led by as many as 12 twice in the second half, the Bears only added upon to their best season in school history.
This season has already produced the program’s first double-digit win streak, its first 25-win season, and its first regular-season AND conference tournament championships —and now the Bears are victors in the national tournament on their first try.
Shawnee State overcame an 11-day layoff which impacted its offense early on Saturday, but the Bears still managed to shoot 48-percent from the field on 31-of-64 —and dominated in rebounding by 20 total boards (43-23).
The Bears also operated on only one day of preparation for the Golden Bears, which defeated Rochester on Friday night in order to return to Thomas More —and take on Shawnee State.
Shawnee State coach DeLano Thomas talked about, more than anything actual basketball-wise with his Bears, “coming together in this moment”.
“Honestly, it really wasn’t about basketball with this group. Every day in our preparation for the last 11 days, it was all about us and trying to get these guys to understand this moment that we’re in and locking in on it,” said Thomas, in the postgame press conference. “Just how special they are and how grateful to be able to coach them right now.”
Thomas — the Mid South Conference Coach of the Year — admitted that he didn’t have his best coaching game, and that “I felt they (Bears) picked me up a lot today”.
“At the same time, West Virginia Tech did a very good job of playing the game they wanted to play. But once we were able to show some patience on defense, and started controlling the glass, it changed the game for us a little bit. Defense and rebounding has been our thing all season, and we stayed with that.”
One Bear which shouldered the load on Saturday was senior standout James Jones, who poured in a game-high 27 of the Bears’ 76 points —shooting 11-of-19 from the field and playing all but three minutes and 49 seconds.
The Golden Bears opened the scoring with a corner-pocket three-pointer only 50 seconds in, but two minutes and five seconds later, a Jones jumper put the Bears in blue in front for good.
That was his first of his 14 first-half points, as Jones also grabbed eight first-half rebounds —part of 10 for the entire game.
“I told James (Jones) great players make big plays in this moment, and I thought he made several of those in the first half and down the stretch today,” said Thomas.
Many of Jones’ shots were from 10-feet or beyond, as his mid-range jump shot — in part — spearheaded the Bears building five first-half seven-point leads (12-5, 18-11, 22-15, 24-17, 26-19) along with a pair of nine-point cushions (28-19 and 30-21).
Shawnee State shot 51-and-a-half percent in the opening half on 17-of-33 —and led 39-31 at intermission, before boosting its largest advantages to 12 (43-31 and 45-36) twice in second half’s first 4:03.
“My coaches and teammates believe in me and what I can bring to the table. It makes it easier for me to knock down those shots that I usually take,” said Jones.
Speaking of knocking down shots, while Kobe Johnson’s three-pointer was the Bears’ only such on Saturday, the Golden Bears kept themselves close by splashing 15 trifectas.
Andreas Jonsson and Tamon Scruggs sank five triples apiece en route to 21 points each, and Darrin Martin mustered four three-balls towards 14 points himself — as the Golden Bears battled back to within one point twice at 51-50 and 53-52.
That second second-half one-point deficit marked the half’s halfway point, but from there, four straight E.J. Onu dunks made for an 8-3 SSU run over the next 4:38 —as West Virginia Tech never got closer than three points at any particular point in the final 8:10.
Over the final 13 minutes, the Bears’ largest lead stood at 73-65 —with 20 seconds to play.
“As West Virginia Tech was making that run, we were calling timeouts to tell our guys to just move on to the next play. That was the biggest thing that we were preaching,” said Thomas.
In addition to Jones’ game-high 27, the 6-11 Onu — the MSC’s Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year — added in 20 points on 8-of-13 shooting and a game-high 14 rebounds, including scoring 16 second-half points.
In fact, from the 17-minute mark to the 5:40 juncture, Onu amounted all 16 of those second-half points — helping keep the Golden Bears at arm’s length despite West Virginia’s Tech’s 11-2 run that got the game to within a single point’s margin.
Onu now has 1,527 career points and 833 career rebounds —and his five blocked shots Saturday sets him just one shy of an even 500.
Thomas said Onu’s energy boost with his dunking streak was important at that point, returning momentum back in the Bears’ favor.
So too was Miles Thomas’ play, who tallied 10 points on 5-of-10 shooting and dished out four assists, but his exclamation point was his left-handed flush for a slam dunk off an outlet pass from Jones.
That made it 73-65, and essentially iced the contest for the Bears.
Amier Gilmore almost made it four players in double figures and three with a double-double —as he scored seven points and notched nine rebounds.
Both teams shot 20 free throws and meshed 13, as five different Bears made two steals apiece.
Shawnee State will now play again on Thursday at 4:45 p.m. (EST) in Kansas City — against aforementioned Bethel (Kansas).
Bethel, competing in the Wichita (Kan.) Bracket B, upset top-seeded Northwestern (Iowa) on Saturday —by a count of 76-69.
In the 16-team bracket which will compete inside Kansas City’s Municipal Auditorium, the Bears are the fifth-seeded squad while Bethel is the upset-minded 12th seed.
The winner will play in the Elite Eight on Saturday — against either fourth-seeded Faulkner (Ala.) or 13th-seeded Jamestown (N.D.).
Coach Thomas told his team again about keeping in the moment —and keeping together.
“Stay together. Just stay together in this moment,” he said.
West Virginia Tech 31 39 — 70
Shawnee State 39 37 —76
WEST VIRGINIA TECH 70 (13-7)
Tamon Scruggs 7 2-2 21, Andreas Jonsson 6 4-4 21, Juvante’ Hayes 1 0-2 3, Keondre’ King 0 0-0 0, Darrin Martin 4 2-4 14, Andrew Work 1 3-5 5, Philip Mullins 0 0-0 0, Thomas Hailey 1 1-2 3, Ashton Parker 1 1-1 3; TOTALS 21 13-20 70; Three-point goals: 15 (Tamon Scruggs and Andreas Jonsson 5 apiece, Darrin Martin 4, Juvante’ Hayes 1)
SHAWNEE STATE 76 (27-2)
E.J. Onu 8 4-4 20, Kobie Johnson 1 0-0 3, Jakiel Wells 0 0-0 0, Donovan Carlisle 2 0-0 4, Latavious Mitchell 0 1-3 1, Isaac Abergut 2 0-0 4, James Jones 11 5-7 27, Amier Gilmore 2 3-6 7, Miles Thomas 5 0-0 10; TOTALS 31 13-20 76; Three-point goals: 1 (Kobie Johnson 1)
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @BoggsSports © 2021 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved