BELTON- Rare is it that you find two universities whose men’s and women’s basketball programs are both consistently competitive at the top of their leagues. But that is the case at Mary Hardin-Baylor and Hardin-Simmons.
And the two schools themselves, with a shared history dating back to 1934, when Mary and John G. Hardin practically saved both from closing their doors, will meet in Belton on the basketball court Thursday night in two matchups that matter as much in the ASC title races as the pride on the line for each fanbase.
From the outside looking in, these games seem to stand out from the rest. The attendance numbers Thursday night are certainly expected to show that. The annual showdown between the Cru and Cowboys on the football field has helped in bringing about a sort of rivalry that extends school-wide. The atmosphere found in Belton will be equivalent to that of an NCAA Tournament duel, and there is not a player on any of the four rosters who will not feel that.
But internally, it is a different story. Not in the sense that these games don’t mean a great deal- they certainly do-but if one is looking for it to be that “date circled on the calendar”, they aren’t likely to find it.
For these programs to have reached the point at which they are, both women’s teams in the nation’s Top 20, both men’s teams riding multi-game win streaks, it has taken a consistent approach yielding consistent results. Cliche as it may sound, no opponent is overlooked, not in a conference with the sort of parity evident in the ASC in both the men’s and women’s title races. As UMHB women’s head coach Mark Morefield recently put it, “if we want to make a run in the NCAA Tournament, execution and details have to be a part of every single game.”
Hardin-Simmons men’s head coach Matt Brackett, in his sixth year at the helm of the Cowboys’ program, completely agreed.
“For our team, we approach this game as another tough conference opponent,” Brackett told True To The Cru. “Every conference game is important and this is no different.”
In fact, speaking with all four head coaches on separate occasions, a similar sentiment was shared.
“Our program is in the position, just from our thought, where we’re going to get everyone’s A game every night,” Morefield said. “No matter if it’s the last team in conference or the team in first place, we’re going to get everyone’s best.”
And as for the motivation that comes with Hardin-Simmons, last year’s ASC Tournament champions, being picked ahead of UMHB in the ASC Preseason Poll?
“Whether it was Hardin-Simmons or UTD or ETBU, our mentality would’ve been the same of, ‘That’s who you voted, we’re going to show you,’” Morefield said of his team’s approach to being picked second to the Cowgirls in the preseason projections.
Kendra Whitehead, the most decorated player in HSU program history and now in her fifth year as the Cowgirls’ head coach, said defending that preseason No. 1 vote has not even been a topic on the mind of her team. They themselves were in a position last year where they entered the ASC Tournament as the No. 3 seed and ended up walking away with the title. Though a storyline for the media and fans, the ASC preseason poll hasn’t been much of a motivation point.
“It sounds cliché to say, but we don’t talk about rankings or results very often,” Whitehead recently said. “We try to focus mostly on becoming the best version of ourselves every day. Lately, we have been discussing what that means for us as Christian women as well because we believe God calls us to strive for excellence in all areas of our lives.”
Cliche? Maybe. But very true at the same time. In a “rivalry” across many sports that has been developed through cultures of excellence, UMHB and HSU’s basketball programs share that trait in common.
The motivation for UMHB men’s head coach Clif Carroll lies in a different set of goals and expectations, not tied to any one opponent, but an objective to ascend the steep slope of becoming the first program since, Hardin-Simmons ironically enough, to win consecutive ASC championships. Tied for second place in the league with a 5-2 conference record, and five straight home games over the next three weeks, there is room for a significant statement.
“We’re climbing back to the top of the standings and we have a great opportunity five straight home games [coming up],” Carroll said. “[Hardin-Simmons] the first one. We just have to focus on that.
“We can’t get involved with the rivalry. We’ll let the football team create a little havoc this week. We’re just going to focus on playing. Matt Brackett always has some great stuff ready for us.”
Brackett knows UMHB well. As a four-year point guard for HSU from 2004-2007, Brackett has seen the Crusaders up close for quite some time, having returned to Abilene as head coach six years ago.
“My senior year we played UMHB in the conference semifinals of the ASC tournament in 2007 at Mississippi College and that was a great game,” Brackett recently recalled. “Many of those guys on that team are now friends of mine so it is always fun to talk about that game.”
That’s just it. “Rivalry” or not, when programs of this caliber meet in the regular season, in the midst of a fierce battle within the conference standings, it brings out the best, and in turn, creates lasting memories.
“We have a lot of respect for the UMHB women’s basketball program,” Whitehead noted. “We’ve played some great games over the past few years and several have come down to the last possession or two. I think that expectation adds to the energy and emotion surrounding this rivalry.”
On the women’s side, it will be a Top 25 duel, with HSU ranked 16th nationally, and UMHB 20th. The men’s matchup is getting back to where it was in the mid-2000s, as HSU has stayed competitive with the Cru in recent meetings, winning in the last one played in Abilene, on Dec. 11, 2021.
“We’ve had some highly competitive games with Hardin-Simmons the last couple years,” Carroll said. “Thursday night is going to be a big-time game. Students are going to be back. It’ll be a great atmosphere.”