By Kyle LoJacono
The Saint Leo University (SLU) men’s basketball team won its Sunshine State Conference (SSC) quarterfinals contest 62-57 against Nova Southeastern on Feb. 29.
The win extends the Lions’ (18-11, 11-6 SSC) win streak to eight, a new program record. The late-season run comes after SLU started the year 9-10, 3-6 in conference play.
“I don’t think anything turned around because we felt like we were close,” said Lions first-year coach Lance Randall. “We’ve got one sign hanging on our wall that talks about the stonecutter who on the 100th blow the stone was broken, but it wasn’t that last blow that broke the stone. It was the 99 before it. That’s really what has come to fruition for us.”
Randall, who was recently awarded the SSC Coach of the Year honors, was named SLU’s coach last summer and was tasked with turning around a program that last finished with a winning season 14 years ago, a streak now guaranteed to end. The squad also lost all but three returners either to graduation or transferring.
“We were picked to finish last in the conference,” said junior guard Marcus Ruh, who had 11 points. “Everyone doubted us coming into the year. … We all knew it was going to take a little while to gel. Obviously it’s tough when you’re not winning, but I’m proud of the coaches and the kids because we stuck through it.”
The Sharks (13-14) stifled the Lions’ offense early while taking advantage of second-chance points off offensive rebounds. Nova had 11 offensive boards to zero for SLU in the first half.
Randall said the winning streak may have gotten to the players’ heads leading to the slow start.
“We went a little too much one-on-one, but I’ll take that if it means our guys feel good about themselves,” Randall said. “It’s better to be aggressive than passive.”
The Lions entered halftime up 37-24 thanks to their own suffocating defense limiting the Sharks to 28 percent from the floor, living up to their No. 6 national scoring defense.
SLU came out flying after halftime, stretching the lead to as much as 18 with 15:56 remaining. Nova chipped the Lions’ advantage down to three with 31 seconds left.
The Sharks fouled Trent Thomas, who stepped to the line and missed the front half of a one-and-one. Nova got the rebound and fired a 3-pointer that missed the mark. Lions forward Tom Neary grabbed the rebound and found Thomas running to the other basket.
Thomas pulled up and dribbled into the right corner to waste more time instead of risking a shot. The Sharks fouled Thomas with eight seconds left and the junior guard stepped to the charity strip confident he wouldn’t miss again.
“When I went for that first free throw I was a little shaky because it was my first one of the game,” Thomas said. “After I got to the line again I knew both shots were going in.”
Both shots found their mark, sealing the victory.
“That’s winning basketball,” Randall said. “In the end this team is finding different ways to win.”
Thomas said the team almost fell into the overconfidence trap because of the big lead.
“The sense of urgency kicked in and we stuck it out,’” said Thomas, who led SLU with 12 points. “Coach Randall was constantly screaming ‘get a stop, get a stop.’ After the fourth or fifth time we finally got a stop.”
Forward Regis Schager, the Lions’ only senior, had five rebounds while pouring in 10 points — more than twice his average.
“The whole team did very well tonight,” Schager said. “If we do our job we know we’ll do well. For me it was very nice to have a good game.”
The Lions, who entered the SSC tournament as the No. 7 team in the south region, earned their first trip to the 32-team field NCAA Division II tournament, turning around the culture of the program in one year.
“I’m just glad that I’m on this team right now,” Thomas said. “For the school to not have a winning season in a long time, and for us to come in and change things around is great.”
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