Photo by Luke Zayas/True To The Cru
BELTON- It took the UMHB men’s basketball team a few minutes to find a rhythm on Saturday afternoon; long enough that Ozarks jumped ahead 32-24 on one of Grayson Nix’s three three-pointers in the game’s opening half.
But once the Crusaders kicked into gear, there was no stopping them.
Moments after Nix swished the three from the corner, giving the Eagles an eight point advantage, Ty Prince connected on a three of his own, sparking an outstanding 20-0 scoring run that saw UMHB erase the deficit, and end up with a 44-32 lead before Ozarks scored again. That run put the Crusaders in the driver’s seat, as they closed their regular season home finale with 44 second-half points and a 90-65 victory. UMHB is now 19-4 overall, having won their last 12 contests.
“We didn’t play with much energy to start the game,” UMHB head coach Clif Carroll said. “We weren’t turning it over, but we didn’t force the issue. I felt like when we subbed in Jerry Day, everybody started playing hard. He was a little bit of a trigger for us.”
Day’s reverse layup was the first “big play” in the 20-0 run, as the UMHB guard put the Cru in front, 33-32, with 4:10 left in the first half. Then came another three from Prince, on an offensive rebound and assist from Kyle Wright. On a day in which he was honored as one of the program’s seven seniors, it was fitting that Prince had such an impact on the game’s biggest scoring spurt. He finished as the team’s scoring leader with 21 points, and provided the assist to D.J. Kane that gave UMHB a 12-point lead, its largest lead of the opening half.
Not only was it senior day for a roster with a number of graduating players, but at halftime, the 2013 men’s team was honored, as this season marked the 10th anniversary of the only team in Crusader basketball history to reach the D-III national championship game. It wasn’t hard to draw the parallels for a UMHB team very much in the national conversation, with one last opportunity to do it with the core group that joined Carroll in Belton during his first season at the helm of the program in 2020.
“We talked about it at halftime,” Carroll said of the national championship and his squad’s goals, 10 years later, to accomplish the same. “That’s something we’re capable of. You don’t want to talk about those things if you’re not good enough to do it. But if you’re good enough to do it, let’s talk about it.
“That’s why I held our guys out there at halftime, to watch the recognition [the 2013 team] got. Those players played for a national championship. That’s where we’re trying to go. I wanted our guys to see, it can be done.”
The defense, particularly in the second half, appeared very much to the championship caliber that will be necessary for ASC tournament success and an NCAA tournament run as well. Ozarks took 41 three-point attempts, making just 13 of them, only four of which came in the second half. The Eagles ended up with just 12 points in the paint, unable to effectively drive the ball inside and to the rim.
“We have a theory that teams have a really hard time making enough contested threes to beat us,” Carroll said. “If they’re wide-open and in rhythm, that’s one thing. But if they’re making tough shots, we’re going to take our hat off to them. That’s what we’re forcing them to do. Of their 62 shots, 41 of them came from the three-point line. We were executing our defense at that point.”
As Carroll said it, following the road win over UT-Dallas on January 7, he told the team that all they had to do was win out the remainder of the regular season and the final two rounds of the ASC Tournament would return to Belton for a second straight year. The ticking clock started at 11 games. After Saturday’s win, it is down to two.
“I don’t run and hide from things like that,” Carroll said, when asked if he’s spoken with the team at all on the topic of claiming the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament with a pair of wins at McMurry and Hardin-Simmons next week. “They’re smart kids. They can look at the standings and understand. I think it’s better to hit it head on.”
For an experienced roster, led by an experienced coaching staff, this time of the season, “tournament time” as it is called, is met with excitement and intensity. The Crusaders are ready.
“This is why we all do this, for these couple weeks coming up,” Carroll said. “We’re tired. We’re beaten down. And I don’t need an alarm clock to wake up in the morning. The excitement is awesome. We have a great group of kids and I’m so ready for the next couple of weeks. This is a really fun time to be a coach.”
UMHB stat leaders
Points: Ty Prince (21), Josiah Johnson (14), D.J. Kane (11)
Rebounds: Gibson Hearne (10), Ty Prince (8), Josiah Johnson (6)
Assists: Ty Prince (4), D.J Kane (3), Kyle Wright (3)