Vikings claim first HAAC tourney title
Heading into his 12th season as Missouri Valley College head men's basketball coach, having already eclipsed the program's record for victories, Chad Lance had reason to be optimistic.
He had no idea that the Vikings were poised for the greatest stretch run in the team's history.
Valley had doubled its win total from nine to 18 during the 2013-14 campaign, and was returning 10 lettermen -- including four starters -- to its roster. Included among those were two keystone players: senior forward James Lane, an all-Heart of America Conference honorable mention selection, and the league's "newcomer of the year" in senior guard Brad Hamilton.
Even so, the Vikings were picked for fifth place in the pre-season coaches' poll, among four teams seeking to challenge favorites Benedictine and MidAmerica Nazarene.
"Anytime we are in the middle of the pre-season poll, it usually means we have some ability, but still have work to do," Lance said at the time.
That was apparent when Valley went 4-4 in non-conference games, although a 56-52 loss at seventh-ranked Columbia showed the squad's potential. The Vikings provided additional encouragement by winning five of its first six league games.
However, Valley leveled off after that, apparently en route to the fifth-place finish forecast. But then, after a disappointing loss at Culver-Stockton, it won four straight conference contests -- including a one-point home win over No. 17 Benedictine that helped capture the third seed in the post-season field.
In a series of contests reminiscent of North Carolina State's amazing run to the 1983 NCAA championship, the Vikings managed to "find a way" -- invoking the mantra of Wolfpack coach Jim Valvano -- to win.
Opening the tourney at home for the first time in 12 years, Valley capped a series of four lead changes during the closing minutes with two Hamilton free throws with 5.2 seconds remaining for a 65-62 decision.
Then came a rematch with Benedictine in the semifinal round, this time on the road. The Ravens took control early, leading by 14 points late in the first half. However, the Vikings went on a 27-7 run and led by nine points with 3:40 remaining. Benedictine got to within one possession, but no closer than three points. The four-point margin was the largest by which Valley won in the post-season.
The victory also secured the Vikings' first appearance in the Buffalo Funds NAIA Division I Tournament since 1961. By this time, they were hot and motivated, especially since they knew they could beat Evangel -- the league's regular season champion -- having done so less on their home court less than two weeks earlier, 87-80.
The Tuesday night championship showdown at Springfield provided a classic conclusion. Valley led throughout regulation until the Crusaders closed to within a bucket when senior Korey Tillery sank two free throws with 2:16 remaining. The next two minutes were tense, and scoreless. Two controversial calls, both requiring video replays, went Evangel's way and senior Josh Veurinks' two charity shots with three seconds to go sent the contest into overtime.
Freshman Byron Cooke put the Vikings ahead with a second-chance basket following junior Raviel Burton's offensive rebound with under 40 seconds remaining. Valley came up with a stop and Lane made it a two-point game from the line at the 10-second mark -- with the Crusaders unable to get off a shot during their final possession.
"This is the top of the mountain," Lane exclaimed. "When we started the season, this is what we said we wanted to do. There's been a lot of ups and downs, but we did it baby."
It was the first HAAC Tournament championship for Valley, a charter member of the league founded in 1971.
The Vikings would have another overtime win in the tank, beating fourth-ranked Freed-Hardeman (Tenn.) in Kansas City's venerable Municipal Auditorium nine days later, 71-69 on two Lane charity shots with 1.6 seconds to go. Burton had 20 points as Valley won at the big show for the first time since beating No. 15 Maryland State -- now Maryland-Eastern Shore -- by 15 points 54 years earlier.
The unranked Vikings' seven-game spree would end two nights later with a hard-fought, 81-72 loss to 13th-rated Mid-American Christian (Okla.).
Lance is still in charge, but Valley hasn't equaled that 22-11 record or returned to the NAIA tourney since. However, hope springs eternal, and maybe the signing of Marshall's all-time leading scorer -- Lance's son Jace -- will produce another such magical moment.
"20 Years/20 Memories" is a series of personal retrospectives of significant moments in local sports since the start of the millennium by Chris Allen, Sports Editor the Marshall Democrat-News since 1996.
Contact Chris Allen at firstname.lastname@example.org