Men's Basketball embracing top seed for NAIA Tournament
By Jim O'Hara
#1 Shorter (31-2) vs. Life (19-14)
Wednesday, March 14 • 11:45 am ET • Municipal Auditorium, Kansas City
ROME – Team chemistry. Every coach dreams about having it. Every team strives to achieve it. Only a few, however, are able to see it come to fruition.
Add the Shorter University Hawks basketball team to that small list of programs that have found the right blend and have done it with an added ingredient of fun.
“That’s the big part of it. We’re having fun playing basketball,” Shorter junior Anthony Banks said about the No. 1-ranked Hawks, who returned for a relaxed practice this week just days after they captured the program’s first Southern States Athletic Conference championship to prepare for the school’s first appearance in the NAIA Division I Men’s Basketball National Championship that begins in Kansas City next week.
The Hawks, who enter the national tourney with a 31-2 record, will make their debut against another contender from Georgia, three-time national champion Life University out of Marietta, in a morning showdown starting at 10:45 am (11:45 am ET).
Shorter heads to the main event having easily swept through the field at the SSAC Tournament, winning its three games by an average margin of more than 17 points with the final outing resulting in an 89-71 romp over Belhaven in the title game.
If the Hawks felt any pressure, it sure didn’t show. Shorter scored the first 10 points of the title game, led by 24 at halftime and never looked back. By the time the final buzzer sounded, the Hawks had hit a sizzling 58 percent of their shots from the floor, 47 percent from 3, and had once again displayed their superior depth and balance to cruise to the victory.
Banks, who wound up being named the tourney’s Most Valuable Player, led the team with 19 points and 12 rebounds. All-Tournament picks Walter Hill and C.J. Davis added 19 and 17 points, respectively, and Kenny Leverette pumped in 12.
“It was fun,” Shorter head coach Chad Warner, who was named the SSAC Coach of the Year, said about the championship effort. “For whatever reason we were poised and ready to play and that leads to fun games. We had great support from the fans and it was exciting for Shorter.”
“It was awesome. That was probably the biggest win I’ve had in my career,” senior point guard and Ider, Ala., native Eric Nix said. “We were pretty confident and knew what we needed to do. We turned it up on the defensive end and got it going. We had a blast out there. With all of the personalities we have on the team, it’s easy to have fun.”
“Everyone keeps each other loose,” said senior guard Darius Steger. “For me, it didn’t kick in until Sunday, but I know it felt good cutting down the net. This season has been very, very memorable.”
Memorable indeed. In addition to winning the SSAC East Division and Tournament titles, Shorter set the record for most wins in a season, saw Warner eclipse 100 head coaching wins in less than five seasons, watched as Hill surpassed the 1,000-point barrier in less than two years with the Hawks, and finish as the No. 1 team in the NAIA’s final regular season poll.
“Going into the tourney we knew we would be in it, but we still wanted to accomplish some goals,” said Warner. “The guys are excited. [Winning the SSAC title] was nice for them individually and collectively as a team, but we still have some goals to reach.”
“I don’t feel like we’re done yet,” Nix said. “I feel that there’s more to come. Now we need to take that next step.”
Shorter’s first step in the national tournament will be a giant one. The Hawks, the tournament’s No. 1 seed, have been paired in the first round against a Life program that, unlike Shorter, is no stranger to the national tournament.
Having received an automatic berth by winning the Association of Independents Tournament, the Runnin’ Eagles (19-14) are making their 12th trip to the national tournament and have claimed national titles in 1997, 1999 and 2000.
“Yes, it will be new to us,” Warner said about the experience, “but it is the coach’s job to have the trip planned out and to take care of all this things that surround it. We don’t look at it as a five-game tournament. The only thing we are concerned with is who we play next Wednesday.”
It’s a certainty that the Hawks will have some fun getting prepared to make the trip to the Midwest. They do so knowing that they head to Kansas City with something they sought at the beginning of the season – respect.
“The people in our conference know who Shorter is,” said Steger. “Now we’ll be on a national stage to show everybody else.”
“You have to go out and earn respect,” Banks said. “I think we’ve done that.”