Above photo by Luke Zayas/True To The Cru
BELTON- There was nothing but silence inside the UMHB locker room. And yet, everyone had the same thought.
This was not the way it was supposed to go, ending the regular season with a loss on senior day to a rival that broke a 20-game win streak and perfect conference record. The emotions from the Crusaders postgame were that of a season-ending defeat, rather than a regular-season meeting.
Perhaps because they knew the result of Saturday’s Top 25 home matchup against No. 22 ETBU could have turned out very different.
“In the locker room, everyone was very quiet,” UMHB junior forward Olivia Champion said, “because everybody knew what we did not do in order to win that game.”
That included being outrebounded 50-32 in the 71-57 defeat, and scoring a mere three points in the second quarter, which gave ETBU a 10-point halftime lead.
But that was not the final chapter in what has been a memorable season for the nation’s No. 16 team. In fact, head coach Mark Morefield hopes it was an “attention-getter” as UMHB heads into this week’s ASC Tournament, in which the Cru holds the No. 1 seed.
“It was an eye-opener and sometimes you have to learn a lesson the hard way,” Morefield said. “The great thing is that the only thing it impacted was a perfect conference season. At the end of the day, we want to win conference championships and make a run in the NCAA Tournament. Sometimes you have to have those losses to refocus.”
The quest for the program’s third consecutive conference crown begins tomorrow at 2:30 p.m. in Marshall, Texas, where UMHB battles No. 8 seed Belhaven, whom the Cru defeated 61-53 a week ago.
Regular season victories are an indication of the way a tournament game might play out, but naturally, the level of competition is raised when it comes to postseason play, Champion noted.
“We know the level of competition that is going to be there this week,” she said. “Yes, we beat all those teams once in the regular season but playing them in the postseason is completely different. Now it’s win or go home.”
The team, 21-3 overall, has taken that mentality to heart in the days leading up to the tournament. After taking Sunday off, the Crusaders returned to practice with an elevated intensity that encouraged Morefield in his team’s response to Saturday’s loss.
“I thought today we had a great practice, probably one of the best practices we’ve had in weeks,” Morefield said Monday. “From an offensive standpoint, we weren’t rushed. Defensively, we were moving as a unit. That’s what team defense is about.”
Defense was an area that the Cru particularly struggled in against ETBU, allowing more than 70 points for the first time since a 74-72 win over Hardin-Simmons on Jan. 27. The Tigers shot 40 percent from three-point range, 45 percent from the field, and had little trouble finding consistent offense.
“The way we played Thursday is a microcosm of the way we played today,” Morefield said Saturday, noting the narrow victory over Belhaven two days prior. “It was just against a better team that is going to take advantage of mistakes. But they didn’t do anything we weren’t prepared for.”
Which brought about a sense of disappointment and frustration as the team walked off the court. It transpired into the quietness inside the locker room, until a number of the team’s returning players, specifically the senior captains, took charge.
“All three seniors stepped up,” Morefield said. “They said, ‘Here’s what the situation is and if you’re not ready to be all in on Monday and win a conference championship, don’t show up.’ They set a strong tone. And Olivia, Ashley [Faux], Cheyanne [Bonilla], Kaitlyn [Kollmorgen] all backed that up.”
Champion offered a similar perspective.
“Having the weekend to think about it, we came back yesterday and had a really good practice. Everybody is now dialed in, ready to take the next step in our goals.”
Having the entire team on one page is critical, especially for a team that relies heavily on its depth in critical games. Faced with the task of winning three games in three days to accomplish the goal of a conference tournament title and along with it, an automatic bid to the NCAA D-III Tournament, Morefield expects productivity from his bench in Marshall.
“The bench is always going to be important,” Morefield said. “They’ve helped us be successful. They’re going to be counted on again. I feel our bench is built for three games in three days. That’s how we want to build our team, to be able to withstand three games in three days or back-to-back NCAA Tournament games.”
Last March, UMHB barely earned the fourth and final West Division spot in the ASC Tournament, but defied the odds, and defeated ETBU, 75-72, in the championship game. One year later, the tide has turned, as the Cru holds the top seed. But there are some who still see UMHB as the projected fourth-place finisher in the conference, rather than the regular season champion. And that is fine with Champion.
“If you look at the preseason, a lot of people had us picked fourth in the conference,” Champion said. “A lot of people didn’t expect a lot out of us. We’re the No. 1 seed, but I still think that people are counting us as the underdog. I’d honestly rather go in as the underdog, because we’ve already proven we’re a good team.
“We don’t let any of those rankings affect us. We just keep going out and playing and doing what we know how to do. Those results are obviously being shown.”
Riley Zayas is the managing editor of True To The Cru. He can be emailed at email@example.com.