Above photo by Russell Marwitz/True To The Cru
BELTON- Hours before UMHB tipped off in the ASC title game, head coach Clif Carroll sat inside the empty arena, looking up at the banners of past championship teams. He knew the last time the Crusaders had claimed a conference championship: 2010. He also knew that could be changed in just a few hours.
And it was.
Playing its third game in three days, top-seeded UMHB showed no signs of wear, instead riding the adrenaline rush infused by the vocal, pro-Cru crowd inside the Mayborn Center. It all added up to a 99-82 defeat of No. 2 seed LeTourneau, clinching the conference title, and an automatic bid into the D-III NCAA Tournament.
“After our shootaround at noon, I literally sat in the gym the rest of the afternoon, just looking at the banners,” Carroll said postgame. “I knew exactly when the last [ASC Championship] was. This is why you come here.”
In Carroll’s second season in Belton, and the first year the NCAA Tournament will be held with him as UMHB’s head coach, the Crusaders are representing the ASC in the national tournament.
“It’s so special,” Carroll continued. “This is a special school, a special program, a special community. There’s a lot of winners around here. I’m just glad I can add to the pod a little bit.”
Against a solid defensive team, the Cru tallied just eight points in the first five minutes. But the offense soon found momentum, as Ty Prince once again connected on his first three shots of the night, and Nathan Stolz came off the bench, scoring on consecutive possessions.
By the time the opponents reached the 7:39 mark at the second media timeout, UMHB led 26-25, and the Crusaders widened that margin over the next several minutes. Six more points from Prince in a two-minute stretch helped the hosts assemble a 38-30 advantage, and two free throws from the senior forward with 1.8 seconds left in the half, gave UMHB a 10-point, 48-38 halftime lead.
In the Cru’s previous two games, UMHB had experienced a defensive lapse coming out of halftime, as both Concordia and UT-Dallas cut double-digit halftime leads down to zero. But on Saturday night, there was no such lapse on either end of the floor. The closest LeTourneau came to closing the gap was at the 11:02 minute mark, when Deonte Jackson drained a pair of free throws for the Yellowjackets, cutting the UMHB lead to six. Even after Jackson’s trip to the line, however, UMHB extended the lead again, extending the advantage back to double-digits, 73-62, with 7:47 remaining.
“LeTourneau is pretty good, so we couldn’t let them come back,” Prince said postgame. “All we had to do was play hard and keep the lead up. And keep getting stops.”
Offensive consistency and solid defense on the perimeter kept LeTourneau’s scoring chances to a minimum over the final 20 minutes, as the Yellowjackets struggled in getting opportunities at the rim. LETU attempted three more three-pointers in the second half than in the first, but it did little to cut into the deficit.
With 3:47 left, UMHB’s Kyle Wright connected on a three-pointer of his own, and as the ball swished through the net, the UMHB crowd rose to its feet, letting out a loud roar, as the Cru sensed victory in sight.
It did not take long for that victory to be realized. Coming out of a timeout with 1:45, against LETU’s full-court press defense, Josiah Johnson drove to the lane, took a step back and swished home a fadeaway jumper. Game over.
“Coaching is not easy,” Carroll said, “but nights like this make it all worth it.”
With UMHB advancing to the national tournament with a 25-2 record, here’s a closer look at the spectacular win:
Second-chance opportunities put the game away: Throughout the contest, UMHB repeatedly found opportunities for offensive putbacks, rebounding a missed shot, and laying it in. The Crusaders scored 13 second-chance points, six of which were scored by forward Luke Feely. Feely contributed with 18 points, shooting 9-of-16 from the field.
Second half performance was tremendously better than previous two games: In a critical contest, the Crusaders understood the task at hand. Despite fatigue, UMHB closed the game out by outscoring the Yellowjackets 51-44 in the second half, which was notable considering the Cru was outscored or tied in the final 20 minutes against both UT-Dallas and Concordia (TX) in its first two tournament games.
Carroll: “The kids fought so hard. All game long. We had no letup. My hat’s off to LeTourneau. Those guys were warriors. We’ve had some absolute battles with them over the years. We knew they weren’t going to quit, so we had to keep on. We never let them get close enough to catch us.”
Prince’s success on both ends of the floor: Ty Prince was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player following the contest, and in large part due to his play in the championship game. The senior forward tallied 16 points, seven rebounds, and a team-high 10 assists, also recording a pair of steals. It was an exceptional performance in a high-stakes contest.
Carroll: “Ty has special talent with his skill and size. He really got locked in this weekend. This was the best I’ve seen him play. I was proud of the kid. He’s been through a lot. He’s going through a lot. His journey has been long. To see him have success tonight was special for me as his coach, and a mentor. I’m so happy for him.”
Prince: “I tried to get my teammates open and make sure I was real aggressive. If I’m aggressive, we have a higher chance of winning. I tried to make plays for my teammates and they executed.”
UMHB has clinched the ASC’s automatic bid to the D-III NCAA Tournament, which begins on March 5. The Cru will find out where and when it plays the first round of the tournament on Monday, when the NCAA releases the 64-team bracket.