UMHB gets its shot of a lifetime

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Kitrick Bell, a All-America selection, had 24 points and 24 rebounds in a January game against Concordia (Texas).
Photo by Andrew Zavoina,

By Brian Lester

Kitrick Bell laughed when he was asked if he thought Mary Hardin-Baylor had an opportunity to compete for a national championship this season.

Did he think the Crusaders were good? Of course he did.

But did the junior forward think they were good enough to win a national championship? Well, that is a different story.

“Honestly, it never really crossed my mind,” Bell said. “We knew we had a good team, but our main goal was to win the ASC (American Southwest Conference). No one was really looking beyond that, but once we got into the tournament, we felt like we had a shot.”

That shot turned into the opportunity of a lifetime for Bell and his Crusaders teammates. Mary Hardin-Baylor will take the floor at 12:30 p.m. Sunday at Philips Arena in Atlanta to battle No. 2 Amherst for the right to be crowned the best of D-III for 2013.

Yet, like Amherst, the Crusaders will go into the title game without the momentum they built up during their tournament run, including wins over St. Mary’s (Md.) and top-ranked St. Thomas during the Elite Eight weekend in Salem, Va.

Once the buzzer sounded on a riveting come-from-behind 74-67 win over the Tommies on March 23, catapulting the Crusaders into their first national final, the basketball world stopped spinning.

For the next two weeks, Mary Hardin-Baylor has had to find ways to stay sharp, stay focused and stay poised and ready to roll for what will be its biggest challenge of the season.

“It’s been tough in some ways because you aren’t used to just not playing,” Bell said. “We’ve had to stay patient and I think we’ve done a good job of staying focused and mentally strong. Our mindset hasn’t changed. We’re still preparing to play and win another basketball game.”

Coach Ken DeWeese has been coaching more than 40 years and never has he had to deal with such a unique situation in the postseason. The national championship game was moved to the Final Four city of Atlanta this year as part of the 75 years of March Madness celebration.

“Unusual is probably the best way to describe it,” DeWeese said. “We handled the first week of practice pretty well and this week we are treating it like a normal game-week practice. We’ve kept the practices shorter, but they are still intense. I feel like we’ve done a good job of handling everything, but I guess we won’t know for sure how well we’ve handled it until Sunday.”

No team likes to have its momentum stalled or stopped, but there have been advantages to having some time off before the title game.

For one, the players get a chance to re-charge their batteries in what has been a long and demanding season. The Crusaders started practice on Oct. 15 and played their first game on Nov. 3, an exhibition tilt against St. Edward’s.

It’s been a grind since and the players have welcomed the break with open arms.

“Rest is always important,” Bell said. “It’s been a long year for us and the break has helped us get our energy back. We had a bye for the NCAA tournament, too, so we are used to having extended time off in the tournament. It’s a challenge in some ways, but it’s exciting because of the opportunity we have in front of us.”

The Crusaders have also had extra time to get ready for their opponent. Every detail of the game plan has been looked at over and over again, which is a good thing since Amherst is not the No. 2 team in the nation by accident.

“They are so athletic and so quick, and they have such great basketball IQ,” DeWeese said. “They are also well-coached and disciplined. We have to prepare the best we can for the best team we have played all season.”

Antonie Chaney is one of three freshmen the Cru bring off the bench as part of their regular rotation.
Photo by Andrew Zavoina,

One interesting aspect of Mary Hardin-Baylor’s run is how it handles the emotions of the moment. Its win over St. Thomas was perhaps the biggest emotional high of the year, but that buzz has simmered off over the last two weeks.

Of course, considering what is at stake in Atlanta, getting revved up to play shouldn’t be a problem.

“I wonder about being able to sustain the excitement and emotion of what we did in Salem,” DeWeese said. “I think we will be ready and play with a lot of energy, but you never know until you actually play the game.”

The fact that the game is in Atlanta, though, presents challenges that have nothing to do with how many points or scored or how well a team defends.

Distractions for a D-III national final will be at an all-time high with everything going on in Atlanta for Final Four weekend.

Obviously, the players want to enjoy the once-in-a-lifetime experience, but they also know they have to stay focused on the task at hand.

Bell isn’t worried about it.

“It’s an exciting thing for us because most teams won’t ever get to experience something like this,” Bell said. “We want to enjoy the atmosphere of being there and have fun, but we also have to make sure we are ready to play basketball. I actually think the added excitement of the weekend will motivate our team to play well.”

DeWeese has attended Final Fours in the past and he knows how tempting the distractions of the weekend can be, almost to the point where they have a magnetic pull to them.

It’s all a matter of finding the balance between fun and business.

“The NCAA has an agenda for us and we will be taking part in a lot of events. We’ll spend time doing stuff for CBS and going to Bracket Town. Our guys have done a good job of leading each other all year and I think they will be fine.”

For DeWeese, coaching in a national championship game will be the ultimate dream come true. He is in his 14th season with the Crusaders and has been coaching basketball since 1969.

“I’ve been doing this a long time, and the goal is always to play for a national championship,” DeWeese said. “I’m so happy for the players that they get this opportunity and it’s a great thrill to have a chance to coach in this game.”

Mary Hardin-Baylor planned to head out to Atlanta on Thursday, and once the players land in Georgia the dream will begin to feel much more real.

“It hasn’t quite sunk in yet that we are going to play for the championship, but I think once we get to Atlanta, it will really hit us,” Bell said. “We’re looking forward to the game and hopefully we can find a way to come out on top.”