The road to success is a hard one, with ups and downs, twists and turns, dead ends and pitfalls.
For Texas Wesleyan’s men’s basketball team, the road to a national championship began in earnest on Halloween 2016, and an easy 101-79 win over Dallas Christian College.
“It was a fun first game,” said junior guard Ryan Harris. “The first game was full of energy, we were all excited to play, I was excited to play – I was a little nervous but all the nervousness went away as soon as I touched the ball. I felt the energy from the crowds, our coaches were into it – it was exciting.”
That easy win would serve as a preview of things to come. After the win over DCC, the Rams would rack up six consecutive wins until they lost two in a row, first to Wiley College (70-61) on Nov. 28, and then, three days later, to Mid-America Christian University (91-90).
Two losses in a row is never good, but the Rams kept pushing.
“[The two losses in a row] didn’t affect us because we bounced back,” said Harris, one of the team’s three top scorers. “You had to win some and you had to lose some. If you lose one, it’s how you respond to that what makes you great. You just had to practice hard and be better in the next game.”
After that hiccup, the Rams went on to win 16 and lose only five before claiming the Sooner Athletic Conference regular-season title in late February; their 23-7 record included six blowouts. Wesleyan topped the SAC’s conference standings in late January and never looked back; winning the conference came with automatic placement in the SAC tournament.
The Rams were ecstatic to win the conference but, Harris said, they were driven to accomplish more.
“When we found out we won – at that moment, it was like, ‘Wow,’” Harris said. “Me personally, I’m finally a part of a winning organization. But, I felt like – at that moment – I wanted more. I wasn’t just satisfied with the conference. I want to win the conference tournament. I want to win the nationals. We all enjoyed the moment, but at the same time, we want more to come.”
The Rams started strong in the SAC tournament, blowing out MACU 93-60 on Feb. 28. Not only did the victory advance the Rams to the semifinals, but it was especially sweet, given that MACU had beaten Wesleyan twice in the regular season.
Senior guard Najeal Young, another one of the Rams’ three top scorers with 14.6 points per game, said the win over MACU was simply a matter of Wesleyan wanting the victory more.
“That game, we knew what was at stake and, again, they had beaten us back to back, home and away,” he said.
But the Rams’ hopes of winning the SAC tournament were dashed three days later when they lost 80-68 to the University of Science and Arts. It was the second time USAO had beaten Wesleyan that season, just as MACU had.
“[In that second conference tournament game] we struggled,” Young said. “Our guys just didn’t feel well, we were a little banged up, a little tired. Guys were just not in sync. And they (USAO) was just hitting us, they figured out their strengths and focused on our weaknesses, and that’s why we lost from the conference tournament.”
Losing in the SAC tournament did not bode well for the Rams’ chances in the NAIA national tournament, which was set to begin in Kansas City on March 15, less than two weeks later.
Could the Rams rebound from a tough loss to do better in a more difficult tournament with teams from around the country? Especially since several members of the team were injured?
Young said that, rather than getting down, the Rams remained optimistic.
“I was confident, I felt like we had the best team,” he said. “We were hurt, Jeremy (Crane) was out with a hurt shoulder, Peyton (Prudhomme) had a groin injury, I was a little banged up, Trey (Treyvon Jeffery) was a little banged up – ya know, our core guys were going through something going to the conference tournament. And then we got some time to rest a little bit, so we went go back in better health again, and we got our championship run.”
Junior guard Praneeth Udumalagala, who was honored as a 2016-17 Daktronics-NAIA scholar-athlete, said the key that strengthened the Rams through the tournament was that everyone gave 100 percent from the beginning to the end of every game.
“It definitely felt different being in the bigger stage of nationals, but for us, it’s nothing because from there, there’s no ‘buts,’ ‘ifs’ – there’s no second chances,” he said. “You lose you go home, so there’s only one thing to do – just win. The only plan is, from the first buzzer to the last buzzer, you give everything you have, everyone in the team. From coaches to 15 players, everyone just gives everything ‘til the last buzzer goes. We gave everything, simple as that.”
The Rams’ first NAIA tournament game was simple enough, a 74-68 win against University of the Cumberlands on March 16. Now in the final 16, the Rams beat The Master’s College 77-75 and then, advancing to the final eight, Dalton State College 82-73.
But then came March 20 and the end of a hard-fought game against William Penn University.
The Rams were down by one point as overtime drew to a close. They needed a miracle, but instead they had top scorer Dion Rogers who, with 2.3 seconds on the clock, shot a jumper from the corner. The Ramily held its collective breath for a long second before – swish! – the shot was good and the Rams won 83-82 to go to the championship game.
And from there it was easy. Playing the next night in front of a crowd that included a busload of Wesleyan fans, the Rams led Life University the entire game on the way to a 86-76 victory and the team’s first national championship since 2006.
When it was all over and he had the title and the tournament MVP award, Rogers didn’t know how to react.
“It’s unexplainable man, I don’t know how to feel right now,” he said. “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.”
Naiel Smith, who scored 17 points in the title game, described the Rams’ triumph as a blessing.
It was the leadership, he said, that made the season what it was.
“It feel good man, and actually, to be honest with you, it don’t even feel real,” Smith said just after the championship win. “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 form where I came from. We just wanted to win, that was the whole goal. When Ryan guided us, Dion guided us, Najeal guided us.
“We all deserved it man. 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.”