KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It’s been a season and postseason of firsts for the 2020-21 Shawnee State University men’s basketball team.
The Bears left Portsmouth for Kansas City’s Municipal Auditorium with one goal in mind — one that’s been present since the cancellation of the 2020 NAIA National Tournament which SSU had qualified for the first time in program history: Win the whole thing.
It wasn’t official until the final buzzer sounded, but SSU’s historic 31-2 campaign was concluded with the program’s first-ever NAIA National Championship following their 74-68 win over Lewis-Clark State inside Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City (Mo.).
Winners of 27-straight games, the program’s first Mid-South Conference Regular Season and Tournament Championships, and now National Champions, the Bears’ season-long journey ended in celebration and a net cutting ceremony with Portsmouth, Scioto County, and SSU alumni across the county tuned in intently to witness the historic feat.
Shawnee State’s men’s basketball program became the first team since the 1998-99 SSU women’s basketball team to win a National Championship and the first team men’s or women’s from Ohio to win a collegiate basketball National Title since the University of Findlay’s men’s team did so in the 2008-09 season in NCAA Division II.
The Bears got plenty of time in the spotlight on Tuesday night as the game aired nationally on an ESPN3 live stream, as well as part of the NAIA’s streaming package.
SSU even made SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays with Latavious Mitchell’s first-half putback dunk, which gave the Bears a 35-23 lead, coming in at No. 4 and SC anchor John Buccigross giving a shout-out to Coach DeLano Thomas and the National Champion SSU program.
In his post-game interview with ESPN’s on-site announcers, Thomas said his excitement and approval for his team’s year of work to help bring home a championship trophy to Portsmouth was nearly indescribable, but he found a way to make his point to a tee.
“Words can’t express what I’m feeling right now, more excited for these kids. The year that they’ve had to go through, just the sacrifices they’ve had to make. Being here early, not being able to get into the gym — every other week something popping up. All we’ve been talking about is “Be Different, Be Special”, and these kids went and did it. Now they’ve got a great example of how special they are — I’m just proud of this group right now.”
The Columbus Beechcroft HS graduate and now fourth-year head coach of the Bears’ program added that his journey was something of the Almighty.
“That’s God-driven. I can’t make this up, I can’t make this story up. It was never my plan for me to come back and get my degree, but this is where God put me,” Thomas said, “God put me in a pretty dark place where I had nothing going for me, but this is just a testament of what he had for me. It’s really not about me, it’s about these kids and now they have something they’ll remember for the rest of their lives — I’m just glad to be here with them,”
In the win over Lewis-Clark State, the Bears never trailed after taking a 20-17 lead in the first half following a Warrior run to tie things at 17-all.
LC State made things interesting in the home-stretch of the second half, but SSU never gave up the lead or even allowed the Warriors to tie the game.
The Bears went 13-of-18 from the foul stripe with senior James Jones heading the effort at the line with his 7-of-9 shooting.
Jones — the first team Mid-South Conference guard from Chicago, Ill. who was named NAIA Tournament Most Valuable Player (MVP) after the six-point win — led SSU with a game-high 27 points on 8-of-20 shooting from the floor (4-of-9 from 3-point).
In an impressive rebounding effort, the Bears out-boarded LC State by 19 (52-33) as Jones accounted for a game-high 10 on his own.
Jones finished the tournament averaging 23 points, seven rebounds, and 4.8 assists per game.
He was one of three double-figure scorers for the Bears, including Amier Gilmore who poured in 14 on 5-of-7 shooting and Miles Thomas who had 10.
Senior big-man EJ Onu was also named to the NAIA Tournament First team alongside Jones, capping his four-year career in Portsmouth bringing a red-banner to Waller Gymnasium and doing so in amazing fashion on the defensive end for the entire tournament.
Despite being in foul trouble in both halves of the National Title win, Onu still nearly reached his tournament-average eight blocks a game as the Cleveland native finished with six points, six rebounds, and six blocks in the contest.
Onu finishes his career as the school’s all-time blocked shots leader, just 78 shy of the NAIA All-Time record. Onu’s numbers definitely say so, but he’s likely had the greatest career in the history of Shawnee State men’s basketball with 1,578 points, 866 rebounds, and 529 blocks — each number ranking in the top five in school history in their respective categories.
Six Bears scored at-least six points as SSU shot 25-of-60 from the field as a team and 11-of-28 from behind the three-point line.
SSU becomes the second-straight MSC program to claim the NAIA Men’s National Championship following Georgetown College (Ky.) doing so to wrap-up the 2018-19 basketball season.
Players: Amier Gilmore, Kobie Johnson, James Jones, Jakiel Wells, Desmond Crosby, Jr., Tanner Arey, Dakota Pritchard, Tre Beard, Bailey Davis, Miles Thomas, Issac Abergut, Shawn Paris, Jr., Corie Blount, Jr., Latavious Mitchell, Donoven Carlisle, Markus Geldenhuys, EJ Onu, Alex Schalch Coaches: DeLano Thomas Lindal Yarbrough, Jack Trainer Grad assistant: D’andre Price Video Coordinator: Zack Kelly, Justin Patrick
Lewis-Clark State 30 38 — 68
Shawnee State 40 34 — 74
Lewis-Clark State (22-2) 68
Khalil Stevenson 8 0-2 19, Hodges Bailey 2 0-0 5, Damek Mitchell 5 7-8 21, Nathan Fromm 1 0-0 2, Travis Yenor 0 2-2 2, Trystan Bradley 4 1-2 11, Jake Albright 4 0-1 8; TOTALS: 24 10-15 68; Three-point field goals: 10 (Mitchell 4, Stevenson 3, Bradley 2, Bailey 1); Shooting: 24/69 (10/32 from 3-point); Rebounds: 33 (Mitchell 8); Assists 11 (Mitchell 5); Turnovers: 5
Shawnee State (31-2) 74
Amier Gilmore 5 3-3 14, Kobie Johnson 0 0-0 0, James Jones 8 7-9 20, Jakiel Wells 2 0-2 4, Miles Thomas 3 2-2 10, Issac Abergut 2 0-0 6, Latavious Mitchell 1 0-0 2, Donoven Carlisle 2 0-0 5, EJ Onu 2 1-2 6; TOTALS: 25 13-18 74; Three-point field goals: 11 (Jones 4, Thomas, Abergut 2 apiece, Gilmore, Carlisle, Onu 1 apiece); Shooting: 25/60 (11/28 from 3-point); Rebounds: 52 (Jones 10); Assists: 8 (Gilmore 3); Turnovers: 17
Reach Jacob Smith at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930, by email at [email protected], or on Twitter @JacobSmithPDT © 2021 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved