When the game was over, and he was a national champion, Rams guard Dion Rogers was speechless.
“It’s unexplainable, man, I don’t know how to feel right now,” said Rogers late on March 21, just about an hour after the team beat Life University to capture the 2017 Buffalo Funds-NAIA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship. “It’s just amazing. So much that we’ve been through, all the ups and downs. So we just pull through as a team, we stuck together – we pull through as a family and we played for each other.”
A long bus ride and about 20 hours later, Rogers and the rest of the Rams walked through a gauntlet of cheering fans outside the Sid W. Richardson Center as part of a surprise reception for the team.
The win at Kansas City’s Municipal Auditorium capped a wild three days that included not only the championship win but also, the night before, a dramatic OT win over William Penn University; a late-night disaster that temporarily stranded a busload of fans coming home from Kansas City in the middle of nowhere in Oklahoma; and the surprise reception.
The victory gave the Rams their second national championship in 11 years – they won under head coach Terry Waldrop in 2006 – and bragging rights in the Sooner Athletic Conference that probably taste especially sweet as the Rams were knocked out of the SAC tournament on March 3 with a 80-68 loss to University of Science and Arts.
But that brief setback paled in comparison to the crazy OT victory over William Penn and, 24 hours later, claiming the national title in a game the Rams dominated from the beginning; Rogers, the tournament MVP, scored a game-high 28 points. The victory capped a remarkable season that saw the Rams go 29-7, and 13-5 in the SAC.
Just after Wednesday’s victory, head coach Brennen Shingleton said he was especially proud of his team.
“I’m just ecstatic,” said Shingleton, who emerged from the team bus back in Fort Worth with the NAIA trophy in one hand and one of his children in the other. “I’m really excited for the team. They worked hard, they committed to the process, they did what they’re supposed to do, and they got the reward they deserve.”
Wesleyan President Frederick Slabach wrote in an email on March 22 that he was proud of both players and coaches.
“They have shown true grit, resolve and tenacity throughout the season,” Slabach wrote. “This is a major accomplishment that Texas Wesleyan University will celebrate for years to come. We have a tradition of athletics excellence at Texas Wesleyan, and these student athletes are a huge source of pride for the entire community.”
Senior guard Naiel Smith, who collected 17 points and got play of the game with a layup he pulled off in the second half, described the Rams’ triumph as a blessing.
“It feels good man, and actually, to be honest with you, it don’t even feel real,” Smith said. “My coach say he believes in me – he believes in us, and we here man, and we got it, it’s a blessing man. [Especially] to be the person from where I came from.”
Smith said every player deserved praise for the national title.
“We just wanted to win, that was the whole goal,” he said. “When Ryan (Harris) guided us, Dion guided us, Najeal (Young) guided us, we all deserved it man. That man Trey (senior Trevon Jeffery) is a beast down there, and a lot of people take him for granted, but that man is a beast down there. We all deserved it as a team, man, for real. We all worked hard and nobody expected it, everybody doubted us and look at us here now.”
As the Rams were resting after the win before heading back to Texas, the busload of fans were having their own adventure. While the trip to Kansas City was smooth, the ride back home was not. Around 5 a.m., with the bus near Edmond, Okla., a tire went flat – head athletic trainer Kyle Morgan said it sounded like a gunshot.
The bus pulled into a gas station a few miles down the road when the driver noticed the tire smoking, Morgan said, and said he would let it cool down for a little while. It didn’t.
“Not that long after he [the bus driver] got off, we heard that there was a fire and we all needed to evacuate,” Morgan said. “As the smoke and flames got further and further out, you could see people started rushing more and more off the bus.”
Morgan said the students seemed scared and anxious, but they all handled themselves with dignity. He was especially thankful for the senior leadership and communication.
“Majority of the students were athletes, but even the ones that weren’t, they all handled themselves with class,” Morgan said. “They made the university look really good. Some of the students went down the road to Waffle House, and some stayed back at the gas station, but I knew where they were at all times, thanks to the leadership. They also helped communicate updates and keep everyone calm.”
The tire was put out by local fire fighters, a new one was put on, and the fans continued home, arriving around 10 a.m. And about eight hours later, they were there to greet the new champions. There were many cheers, chants of “Let’s go, Rams!,” and a long line to get the free food prepared by Student Life. The party continued for about an hour, as friends, fans and families mingled with the players.
Harris, a guard and a junior criminal justice major, said it felt good to come home and see how many people cared about the team.
“It feels great to be back here in front of everyone else, and to see all the support that we had all year, this is a great feeling,” he said. “Unbelievable feeling, man.”
Harris said he enjoyed the support, but that it’s vital to keep in my mind what’s important.
“I felt good, it’s the same thing as it always was, you just have the same approach to the game,” Harris said. “You see the fans and the stands and everything, but I can’t make that a priority, I gotta stay focused on what we have to do and that’s exactly what I did and the result came out as a win.”
Fellow athletes from other teams came out to support the Rams, including Anthony Caston, a junior business major who is a wide receiver and corner back for the football team. He said he just came to show some support for his fellow Rams and that he had little doubt the team would win the championship.
“They need somebody to stand by them, and being a part of this school, and being a part of the football program, and being a part of the athletic program – it’s always good to come out and support your fellow athletes,” he said. “I came to a couple of the home games this year, I expected them to do good, I couldn’t pick out if they was gone win or not but I had a lot of faith in them based off what I seen.”
This story contains additional reporting by Ka