In its third and final year of the transition period into the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the men’s basketball team has chosen to make quite the entrance: by winning a national championship.
“I think this tournament that we just won is a great springboard for next year for experience,” head coach Bill Carr said. “I think everybody in our program understands that we all have to get better to compete on the NCAA level and certainly on a regional and national level we should too. The game experience these guys got this week will really help us and make them even hungrier for next year.”
The squad defeated Grace College in the National Christian College Athletic Association Division I title game on Saturday, March 22. The Sea Lions won the game — played at Grace College in Winona Lake, Ind. – with a score of 75-73.
“Grace’s atmosphere was as intense as it gets and they definitely had a home court advantage,” said senior Taylor Wetherell. “At some points of the game we literally couldn’t hear each other call plays out at all because it was so loud. They really had so much resilience and we couldn’t seem to put them away. Normally a team would have folded but with the crowd and basically their whole town in the gym they kept fighting back into it with 3s. Toughest road win of the year by far and it was a great experience seeing us come together in order to pull off the victory.”
The team defeated Union College, Southern Nazarene University and Grace College in their national championship run, ending the season with a .645 win percentage overall. To qualify for the national tournament, PLNU defeated both Bethesda and Azusa Pacific in the NCCAA West Regional.
“Five straight wins… I remember calling Marek (Klassen) after the regular season when we found out we were playing Bethesda… I told him we had to win,” Wetherell said. “From there we started to create a culture with the rest of the team that refused to lose. Every game we would go out and do whatever it took to win. That type of attitude is contagious and everyone bought in. We started playing with a fear of losing and really focused in and prepared well. The coaching staff really upped the intensity as well and it was a great team focus and effort.”
Grace College lead for most of the first half until PLNU went on a 15-3 run heading into half time. PLNU maintained a consistent lead, even leading by 11 at one point in the second half, but the Lancers hung around and eventually trailed by 2 points with less than 7 seconds remaining and a chance to win the game.
But the PLNU squad, true to its defense first philosophy under coach Carr, dug deep and kept Grace from scoring as the clock ticked down to zero.
“I think everybody knows who plays here that we start with defense and we want to win on the defensive end,” Carr said. “After the game a few of them said it was appropriate that we get a stop to win the national championship. I think the past few games we started guarding like I thought we could.”
The team loses two seniors, Wetherell and AJ Ussery. The two contributed 21 points, 3 assists and 7 rebounds together in their final game.
“Aj and I couldn’t ask for a better finish to our college careers. Few seniors exit with a win and even fewer leave with a championship win for their final game,” Wetherell said. “God really wrote this one up good for us. We both plan to continue playing at the next level but it’s hard to imagine a greater team and run we made at the end of this season. We are really just thankful that our teammates wanted the national championship as much as us because we couldn’t have done it without their best effort, and that’s what every single one of them gave.”
In true March Madness style, a no. 4 seed and a no. 7 seed played for the title, and no. 4 PLNU came out on top.
“It feels great to win our last five games on the way to a national championship,” said Junior Hayden Lescault, who contributed a team-high 14 points to the win. “At the start of the year coach Carr told us that if we bough into this team and played for each other we would win a title together. No matter what level it’s on, there is no better feeling than winning a national championships and hanging a banner.”