LEARNING TO FLY: CULVER STOCKTON MEN UPEND DEFENDING NATIONAL CHAMPIONS, BOOK ELITE EIGHT PASSAGE
Front and center, of course, there was the case of another Goliath to slay today for the Culver Stockton Wildcats; a team whose improbable basketball odyssey is one of the better rags to riches stories we've seen in these parts, in any sport in a long time.
And for Jack Schrader's crew, the obstacle before them today just so happened to be a Defending National Champion....
Doesn't get much harder than that...or so it would seem.
Jermaine Jones: "All day that's all we've been saying is 'The reigning champions. We're playing the reigning champions" We got to go out there with some intensity. Be fired up. That's what we've been saying all tournament. How do you feel? Fired Up!"
CJ Adams: "My Mom actually joked to me about it yesterday, said she wanted us to beat them, because we had to prove ourselves or something....I mean, it's not trying to prove ourselves. We just want to make a name for ourselves."
Like any good underdog with a champion to unseat, Culver Stockton wisely made it a point to win the early of rounds of its heavyweight bout with Concordia; jumping out to as much as a 13 point lead 12 minutes into the ball game. But the Wildcats had to know, even at that point, dethroning the champ wasn't going to be easy.
Jack Schrader: "They are good. And they are experienced. They are last year's National Champ. They've been there before. We got off to a very good start. Sometimes when you do, you relax a little bit or you get a little bit of a frenzy feed and you start getting a little bit hurried on offense. And we did. They came back...went ahead..."
The Eagles responded with with a 25-11 run to end the first half; one that had Culver looking wobbled and out of sorts at times; even committing eight uncharacteristic turnovers in the frame. But down a point at the break, the Wildcats simply fell back into the same familiar pattern that netted them a victory on Thursday...and 24 more times before that...
Alan Hadzimahovic: "I mean that's our team. That's how we have been playing almost all year. Second halves. Come out...once our threes start falling, shots start falling in, not a lot of teams can stick with us."
Jermaine Jones: "One of our teammates, Mario Gulley, always says we are a second half team. Personally, I never believed that but these last two games we've been down at the half and came out and ended up winning by a deficit of at least ten so...I guess we are a second half team."
CJ Adams "It's not like we want it to be that way. We just know we are better in the second half than we are in the first half."
Jack Schrader: "It was a grind it out game for the middle part of the game but then towards the end we just made plays. Really just tough defensively. I know they scored a lot of points but we just made them miss when we had to. Big on the boards and everybody just made plays on the offensive end. Good hard fought win that you would expect to get to an elite eight."
A victory that saw four Wildcats in double figures, including the second straight 25 point game from Austin Keaton as well as a monster 14 rebound effort from Jermaine Jones. In short...a 57 points second half that put all of Culver's best attributes on display and pushed this once invisible program, at least on the national scale, from being a "three" to Supermodel Status in one winter's time; a surreal but incredibly gratifing reversal of fortunes for a group of young men now three wins shy of a National Title.