Crusaders among Salem's new faces

More news about: Mary Hardin-Baylor
Mary Hardin-Baylor showed great poise in winning in front of a raucous crowd thousands of miles from home.
UMHB athletics photo by Jon Wallin

By Brian Lester

Winning isn’t some new idea to Mary Hardin-Baylor. The Crusaders have become accustomed to it. After all, they went 25-3 a year ago and played in the NCAA Tournament.

But they have taken winning to another level this season, and in the process, have written a new chapter in the history of the program, reaching the Elite Eight for the first time.

“It’s a good feeling to get to Salem because we know we are part of a team that is making history,” senior wing Brian Todd said. “It’s been a great senior year and the younger players are getting a chance to experience something that will help them in their careers.”

This tournament run is as much about the Crusaders’ ability to find ways to win as it is their drive to overcome adversity.

It started last March in the NCAA Tournament when the Crusaders were bumped off 68-66 by Trinity in their opening round game, after UMHB had gone 20-1 in the conference schedule. A 3-pointer with 17 seconds to play was the final dagger.

The thing about that game is that star Marlon Miller was playing with a twisted ankle and scored just eight points despite toughing it out for 36 minutes. Fellow star Kitrick Bell wasn’t 100 percent either and managed only seven points in 13 minutes.

Just as that season ended in disappointment, the next one began with a bit of it as three of the Crusaders’ taller players were out of the picture before the season even began, including senior Doran Purnell, who accepted a job offer that was too good to pass up. Senior Sheldon Jones tore his Achilles and sophomore Chris Burke has been limited all year by injuries.

“I was really concerned about the season,” Mary Hardin-Baylor head coach Ken DeWeese said. “I wasn’t sure how good we would be, but our players trust in each other and it’s been enjoyable to watch them evolve over the course of this season. I think our mental toughness has played a big part in our success. We have a resilient group of players.”

And the Crusaders needed every ounce of that toughness and resiliency last Saturday in a Sweet 16 showdown against Whitworth in the state of Washington.

With the game tied at 63-63 and a raucous and crowd of 1,820 roaring, the Crusaders dug deep and closed the game on an 8-0 run to earn a 71-63 win.

DeWeese, who has experience coaching at the Division I level with stops at Georgia State and Texas El-Paso, said the atmosphere at Whitworth is comparable to that of a smaller Division I school.

“They have one of the best crowds in America. I’ve never seen atmosphere like it,” DeWeese said. “Their fans choreographed their dances and chants and for us to find a way to win in an environment like that made the win that much more enjoyable. My one concern is that I hope we didn’t spend all of our energy in that game and come out flat on Friday.”

He is doing what he can to make sure it doesn’t happen. The Crusaders take on St. Mary’s (Md.) on Friday in a national quarterfinal at the Salem Civic Center in Virginia. The winner plays St. Thomas or Williams on Saturday in a semifinal for the right to go to the national championship game at Philips Arena in Atlanta on April 7.

“I’ve explained to the team that this season is a long-distance run, especially with the schedule set up different for the tournament this year,” DeWeese said. “The teams that stay emotionally strong and mentally tough, will get to Atlanta.”

Kittrick Bell helped UMHB survive its second-round game against conference rival Concordia (Texas).
Photo by Andrew Zavoina,

Hard work has also played a role in the success of the Crusaders, who failed to win the American Southwest Conference tournament championship but have played their best during the NCAA Tournament, knocking off conference tournament champion Concordia (Texas) 117-92 in their opening game after a first-round bye, then taking down Whitworth.

Todd, the two-time ASC West Division Defensive Player of the Year, said he and his teammates spent a lot of extra time in the gym in the offseason.

“We had a lot of open gyms and did a lot of work on our shooting,” Todd said. “We also hit the weights hard. It seemed like everyone was committed to getting better as players.”

The effort has paid off. Mary Hardin-Baylor (25-5) is averaging 77.5 points per outing and allowing 67. 

Todd is one of four players scoring at least 10 points per game. He is averaging 11.3 and has racked up 47 steals as well. Thomas Orr has nailed 57 3-pointers and is averaging 14.6 points. James Allen is clicking for 13.2 points per outing and Bell is pumping in 12.2 per game.

“We are an average shooting team, but we have been able to get points when we need them. Our real key to success is defense and rebounding,” DeWeese said. “We put a lot of emphasis on field goal percentage defense and being successful on defense is the basis of our program.”

Todd has played a pivotal role on defense for the Crusaders, who have held teams to 38.5 percent shooting from the field and are grabbing 41.9 rebounds per game. Bell anchors the rebounding effort with 10.1 per game. Allen is second on the team in steals with 42.

“Our defense starts our offense because we score a lot in transition,” Todd said. “I always try to play my best on defense because I know how important it is to winning games. As a team, I think we take a lot of pride in playing hard on defense.”

St. Mary’s (27-3) was ranked No. 11 in the nation heading into the postseason and the Seahawks will challenge the defense of the Crusaders as they are shooting 48 percent on the year.

Normally, DeWeese has more time to prepare his team for an opponent, but with travel and limited practice time this week, he has had to make a few adjustments.

“We need to concentrate on what we have done all year to be successful,” DeWeese said. “It’s important to continue to do the things we have done to get to this point.”

And while having a chance to play for a national title in two weeks would be the ultimate dream come true, the Crusaders can’t get caught up in looking ahead.

“Our players aren’t satisfied with just being here. Our goal is to win the next game,” DeWeese said. “Our focus is on being ready to play the game in front of us. Once the season is over, we’ll sit back and take satisfaction in the success we had this year.”