Photo by Steve Frommell, d3photography.com
By Josh Smith
|Porter Morrell followed his game-winning shot vs. St. Thomas with 20 points the following night vs. Elmhurst.
Photo by Steve Frommell, d3photography.com
The players on the Northwestern (Minn.) men’s basketball team won’t be taking a vacation during their spring break this week, and Porter Morrell is largely responsible.
But Morrell’s teammates aren’t bitter about skipping a trip to the beach because they’re preparing for the program’s first-ever trip to the Sweet 16. In fact, the Eagles had never won an NCAA Division III tournament game before Morrell buried a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to edge St. Thomas, 71-70.
“It was just a rush. As soon as it went in, it was almost overwhelming right away. It was just extremely exciting,” said Morrell, who scored a team-high 18 points vs. the Tommies. “It was a lot of fun.”
Northwestern is excited to face East Texas Baptist at the UW-Stevens Point sectional Friday, but the Eagles were one second away from losing a first-round matchup for the fifth consecutive year.
Cody Sprenger tied the game late, but Grant Schaeffer answered with a tough layup at the other end to give St. Thomas a two-point edge with less than 10 seconds to play.
Morrell received the inbound pass, but gave the ball up to Sprenger. When Morrell’s defender provided help stopping the ball, Sprenger passed to Morrell for the final shot of the game.
“Porter took one dribble and let the thing fly,” Northwestern coach Tim Grosz recalled. “I’m kind of watching the ball in the air, and in the corner of my eye, I see the red light go off. A split second later the ball goes through the hoop. Everything broke loose then.
“It’s obviously a great win for our team, for our conference,” the coach said, referring to the UMAC’s first men’s basketball NCAA Tournament victory. “To win it that way was pretty incredible.”
The Eagles added an 84-75 win over Elmhurst on Saturday behind a 20-point effort from Morrell to push their school-record winning streak to 18 games.
“They’re playing really hard. They’re playing good basketball right now,” said Grosz, whose team started the year 2-9 overall. “There’s just a real strong belief in what we’re doing.”
Northwestern is not a stranger to the NCAA Tournament, having won the UMAC’s automatic qualification every year since its inception in 2011. But the Eagles lost its first four tourney games – three of which came at the hands of the eventual national champion.
But despite those outcomes, Grosz said his players felt like they deserved to be in the tourney.
Close no longer
Northwestern had some close first-round games in its first four years in the tournament, and has always had to face a national power right out of the gate.
|Opponent||In the game until ...||How they finished|
|St. Thomas, 2011||Last lead, 4:33 2nd||Won national title|
|UW-Whitewater, 2012||Last lead, 7:28 1st||Won national title|
|UW-Stevens Point, 2013||4-point game, 10:48 2nd||Lost in 2nd round|
|UW-Whitewater, 2014||3-point game, 8:00 1st||Won national title|
|St. Thomas, 2015||Final buzzer||---|
“Our kids have gained confidence from playing in the (NCAA Tournament) over the years,” Grosz said. “I think we’ve always felt like we belong and believed we could be successful. To actually have it happen, I think now, gives our kids even more confidence.”
“We’re definitely excited and proud that we got the (program’s) first win,” Morrell said. “It’s extremely fun. But I think the alum and the teams in the past four years have kind of paved the way.”
Morrell said he and his teammates have approached each game like it is a championship game. He believes that mindset has been instrumental in the Eagles’ lengthy winning streak and postseason success.
“I think to win 18 games in a row, it takes an incredible amount of focus,” Morrell said. “To be able to regroup after every game and say, ‘OK, we won that won, but now it’s time for the next game.’”
That attitude definitely helped Northwestern get ready for its second-round game. After watching Morrell’s shot earn the No. 4 spot on SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays, the team had to move on and prepare for Elmhurst.
“Right after that, the coaches were like, ‘OK, it’s time for bed.’ When we woke up in the morning, the coaches wanted us to stay off social media,” Morrell said. “I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything like that where you come off such a high and have to turn around so quickly and get ready for another game that day.”
However, Morrell said the UMAC’s scheduling of back-to-back games during the conference season, made the first weekend of the tourney feel more familiar.
As the Eagles prepare for East Texas Baptist, they know the most important thing will be to worry about how well they play, regardless of opponent. That’s been the formula for success for the last 18 games.
“We really knew coming into the tournament, that if we play our best then we do belong in here,” Morrell said. “We’ve really just focused on what we can control.”
“We’ve earned our way to the Sweet 16 – beating, I think, two very good teams,” Grosz added. “We really do take it one game at a time. We have a standard that we think we can play up to. That’s a standard we strive for. That’s what we focus on. Then we always say the scoreboard will take care of itself.”