A most welcome return

Craig Carse's team weathered his absence and rewarded his return with an ASC title.
Photo courtesy Hardin-Simmons Athletics

As easy as it might be to take something for granted, to forget to appreciate the moments that matter in sports, rest assured, Hardin-Simmons head coach Craig Carse isn't guilty of it.

He appreciates the opportunity in front of his team as it prepares to play in the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history.

There was, after all, a time this season when Carse wasn't sure if he would even be here today. He spent most of the season battling through a wave of health issues that left him hospitalized for extended periods of time. He only coached in three games in the regular season before returning to the bench for the American Southwest Conference tournament.

"Everyone has a story," Carse said. "I was away for quite a bit of time but I have great student-athletes on this team and assistant coaches who filled in nicely while I was away. I enjoy the opportunity to be here coaching this team. I'm not taking it for granted."

Carse, with more than 400 career wins, is in his eighth season as the head coach of the Cowboys, who are 18-10 and champions of the ASC tournament for the first time in program history. The NCAA tourney journey begins Thursday with a game against Texas Lutheran.

"It's a very rewarding time for the players and the school," Carse said. "But nothing changes. It's just basketball, not science. We'll prepare the way we have all year and play the best that we can."

While the Cowboys are in the NCAA tourney for the first time, this isn't the first postseason rodeo for Carse. He started coaching at the college level in 1977, getting his start at Bethany as an assistant coach for the Bison.

"I don't want to say I played at Bethany, but I was on the team. I wasn't that good of a player," Carse said. "But I was really lucky because I was given a chance to coach and things have worked out very well since that time."

Indeed it has. Carse has coached at every level of college basketball and has lectured and taught the game overseas as well.

One of his coaching stops included a stint as an assistant at Louisiana State from 1987 until 1994. He was the lead recruiter there and helped bring Shaquille O'Neal and Chris Jackson to LSU.

"I've been around a lot of great players as a head coach, but no matter where I've been, the feeling of success is always rewarding," Carse said. "Your goal is the same at every level, too. You aren't just preparing to win games or a conference tournament. You are preparing to win a national title."

Hardin-Simmons lost back-to-back games to close out the regular season but dominated the conference tournament, winning all three games by double figures. They trailed for just 18 seconds in the entire tourney, defeating Louisiana College 91-79 for the championship.

Nathaniel Jack was named the MVP of the conference tournament and is averaging 11.6 points per outing. Christian O'Neal is the leading scorer at 13.3 points per game. The Cowboys put up well over 80 points (85) per outing and allow just under 80 (79.1).

"We played very well in the conference tournament and we know we have the potential to be a very good team in the NCAA tournament," Carse said. "Nothing will be easy because everyone is good at this point, but we're blessed to be here and we're looking forward to seeing what we can do."

Panther power

Birmingham-Southern's men's and women's basketball teams are both headed to the NCAA tournament. The men's team topped Sewanee 68-50 in the Southern Athletic Association tournament final behind 15 points from Ross Welch and a double-double by Alex Avery. Avery scored 13 points and grabbed 10 rebounds for his 17th double-double of the year.

"We hit our stride after a slow start to the season and are playing with a lot of confidence," Avery said. "We're excited about going to the tournament."

The win was the 18th in a row for the Panthers and the 100th career victory for head coach Chris Graves. Birmingham-Southern is 22-6.

Avery has played a pivotal role for the Panthers, putting up 13.6 points per outing.

"My coaches put me in a position to succeed," Avery said. "I just try to make the right play when I have the ball, whether it's scoring it or passing it off to a teammate."

Birmingham-Southern didn't look like a tournament team early in the year, dropping five of its first six. A lot has changed since the calendar flipped to 2016.

"If you had told me we would win 18 in a row, I wouldn't have believed you," Avery said. "We knew we had a good team and it was just a matter of playing our best basketball."

On the women's side, the Panthers won their first SAA tournament crown with a 52-42 win over Millsaps Sunday.

The Panthers are 24-3 heading into their first NCAA tournament. Jasmynn Batts was named the MVP of the conference tourney, scoring 20 points in Sunday's win. Batts averages 10.6 points per game. Birmingham-Southern has won its last three and is led in scoring by Yorisha Bryant (16.0).

Scots win title

Maryville has had its share of success in the past, but on Saturday afternoon, the Scots won a USA South Athletic Conference tournament championship for the first time. Maryville defeated Piedmont 60-48 to secure the crown.

Mackenzie Puckett lit up the scoreboard for 25 points en route to being named the MVP. She also went over 1,500 points (1,509) for her career. Puckett, averaging 15.2 points per game, has helped the Scots win their last nine games. Puckett has averaged 10 or more points per game in each of her four seasons at Maryville.

Double the thrill

It was a weekend of winning in Lynchburg as the men's and women's basketball teams won Old Dominion Athletic Conference tournament titles.

The men's team edged Randolph 62-60 in overtime, securing its first tourney crown since 1979 and tying the record for wins in a season (22). The Hornets are headed to the NCAA tourney for the first time in 37 years.

Zack Burnett led the way with 13 points while Alex Graves, the player of the year in the conference, came through with nine points, 11 rebounds, six steals and four blocks en route to being named the tournament's most outstanding player. Graves leads the Hornets in scoring and has helped Lynchburg win six consecutive games.

On the women's side, the Hornets are headed to the NCAA tourney for the first time in program history after topping Guilford 62-55 in the ODAC tournament title game.

The victory was the 10th in a row and the 24th of the year, a program record for wins in a season.

Caroline Naumann finished with 15 points and 18 rebounds, her second consecutive double-double. She was named the tournament's most outstanding player, averaging 16 points and 14.3 rebounds per outing in three tournament games.

Bulldogs win SCAC title

Texas Lutheran topped Colorado College 80-77 Sunday to secure its second consecutive Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference championship. The Bulldogs are 21-6 and have won six of their last seven.

Sterling Holmes earned MVP honors in the tourney after pouring in 17 points in the title game. Holmes is the Bulldogs' leading scorer (16.5).

The title is the latest accomplishment for Jimmy Smith in his time as the head coach. Smith, in his second season, has guided Texas Lutheran to back-to-back SCAC regular-season and tourney titles along with back-to-back NCAA tournament bids.

Four in a row

Emory is headed back to the NCAA tournament for the fourth consecutive season after taking down Rochester 84-75 Saturday in University Athletic Association action Saturday.

Davis Rao led the way with 25 points, the second-best scoring total of his career. It was also the seventh time in the last eight games that he has scored in double figures. Rao ranks third in scoring (12.6) on an Emory team that is 18-7 overall.

Wait is over

For the first time since 1987, Covenant is headed to the NCAA tournament after topping LaGrange 101-92 in a thrilling USA South Athletic Conference tourney title game.

The tournament crown is the first for Covenant in program history and the first conference title of any kind for the school since 1964. TJ Cox led the way, earning MVP honors as he scored 21 points and dished out eight assists in the title game.

Covenant (18-9) has won five in a row and is in the midst of its first winning season since the 2012-13 campaign. The Scots already have one more win than they did in the last two years combined. The 18 wins is the most in 20 years.

Despite the loss, LaGrange is headed back to the tourney for the third consecutive season. The Panthers are 4-1 against the regional field, beating Covenant twice in the regular season and topping Emory and Birmingham-Southern as well.

Tourney time in Texas

Trinity secured a trip to the NCAA tourney with a 66-50 win over Schreiner in the Southern Collegiate Athletic Association tournament title game Sunday. The Tigers (22-5) earned their first title since 2013.

Monica Holguin lit up the scoreboard for 23 points and also dished out six assists and racked up six steals as she was named the tourney MVP.

Texas-Tyler is headed to the tourney for the third consecutive season. The Patriots are 27-1 after knocking off Howard Payne 77-70 in the American Southwest Conference tournament title game. They have won 19 consecutive games.

Michelle Obach finished with 26 points, highlighting her effort with four 3-pointers, and was named the MVP of the tournament. She has drilled 68 3-pointers. Alex Kochner came through with her second consecutive double-double, scoring 12 points and grabbing 13 rebounds.

Brian Lester

Brian Lester is a reporter in Florida. He has 15 years of experience at newspapers in Virginia, North Carolina and Ohio, spending 10 at The Courier in Findlay, Ohio. Lester also writes an Around the Region column for D3football.com and wrote the book Perfect Run as No. 1 about the 2009 Division II men's basketball champions University of Findlay. He is a graduate of Eastern Illinois.