March 20, 2007

Celebrating Small Ball

Okay, so it's not Kentucky vs. Kansas. Man, it's not even Florida A&M vs. Niagara. But hey, March Madness ain't just a DI one thing, it's a basketball thing. On Saturday, Hoops Odyssey saw the Lord Jeffs take the NCAA DIII crown and tonight we're back at Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City, site of the MIAA conference tournament, to check out the NAIA DI final between the Oklahoma City Stars and the Concordia Eagles.

Hanging out with the Wyandotte High School band.

While the event might lack in player name recognition, (you ever heard of Levi Luster? Kids got seven points in seven minutes so far and is a lock for the All-Tournament Team...) it's got a surprisingly big time college basketball feel. We've got two bands, a mascot and a student section, body paint included. Plus, there's cheerleaders (yeah, they're hot) and we're on TV. I've even got Pete Gillen sitting directly to my left. It's like my dad always used to say: If it's good enough for Pete Gillen, it's good enough for us.

And let's be honest, the NAIA has had its fair share of big name players. Maybe you've heard of Nate Archibald (Alcorn State), Elgin Baylor (College of Idaho), World B. Free (Guilford), Lucious Jackson (Pan American), Dennis Rodman (S.E. Oklahoma St.), and Earl "The Pearl" Monroe (Winston-Salem). Okay, so many of those schools aren't in the NAIA anymore, but you get the point. Big names come from small places.

Excitement is especially high amongst the nearly 4,000 fans at the Municipal Auditorium after last night's epic battle between Concordia and tournament favorite Robert Morris. The game went into an amazing four overtimes before the Eagles finally pulled out the victory, 124-119. Highlights of the contest even opened for SportsCenter. So much for flying below the radar. If the tournament keeps having games like that they might have to move this show to a larger stage.

Can you tell, I'm having fun. It's refreshing to be at a tournament final that isn't completely outdone by it's own hype. The NAIA championship is a nice combo of amateur basketball on a fairly large stage. The players are humbler than at big time programs. The don't put on a dramatic show when the refs make a call (at least not until the second half) and they'll even help opposing players up off the floor. I mean, the league's motto is "Champions of Character", probably not for the likes of OJ Mayo.

Don't tell these OCU fans this ain't NCAA basketball.

We've got some local KC flavor in the arena too. OCU has their band here, and it's a nice gentle set of instruments, but it pales in comparison to the Wyandotte High School band directly to my right. They flat out rock. They've got dancers, not that they need them, the whole band is dancing. And there's a bigger percussion section than a frat boy's got blasting in his head when he wakes up Sunday afternoon.

As for the game, it's pretty apparent that OCU has more size and athleticism and depth than Concordia, but the Eagles keep it close in the first half. They execute better than the Stars and their defense is tighter. But eventually, Concordia's legs fail them - they did, after all, play 1.5 games last night - and OCU pulls away for a 79-71victory.

Celebrating with the NAIA Tournament champions.

When the buzzer sounds, the Stars celebrate. And a celebration is a celebration, be it NCAA or NAIA. The OCU players mob the court, they dance, a few coaches cry and finally, as the tournament awards are about to be presented, OCU forward Willie Irick leans over to an assistant coach and utters the words that every basketball player dreams of saying. Get that party bus ready, coach, Irick says. We're gonna party like champs.

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Posted by Jacob Osterhout at 01:36 AM | Comment