Until this year, Missouri Valley College had never won a first-round game in the Heart of America Athletic Conference men’s basketball tournament.
Heck, the Vikings had never finished high enough in the regular-season standings to even play host to a conference tournament game.
That all changed this season. The Vikings tied for second in the regular season, earned a first-round home game and beat MidAmerica Nazarene. Then, they whipped 16th-ranked Benedictine, coming from 14 points down, and No. 22 ranked Evangel — both on the road.
As a result, Missouri Valley will make its first appearance since 1961 in the NAIA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship when the unseeded Vikings, 21-10, meet No. 4 Freed-Hardeman (Tenn.), 28-3, at 6:15 p.m. Thursday at Municipal Auditorium.
“It sounds like a ‘Hoosiers’ story, doesn’t it?” Vikings coach Chad Lance said. “The first four would always host games, and for several years, we would finish in the middle of the pack, or finish fourth but lose the tie breaker and always have to go on the road and visit the fourth seed or finish sixth and go to the third seed. …
“We were just skating, just right there on the outside looking in.”
To be fair, Missouri Valley — located in Marshall, Mo. — competed in the Division II level during 1991-2009 and participated in the 1992 Division II national tournament.
But the last six years have been frustrating not being able to reach the Division I tournament 87 miles to the west in Kansas City.
“Going over there and seeing the atmosphere and seeing the teams there,” Lance said, “I told our guys before the selection show, they might not know that is the most historical tournament in the country and the only one that is played under one roof, so the opportunity and nostalgia that goes with it is second to none.”
The Vikings enter Thursday’s game having won six games in a row and seven of their last eight. The season turned after an 82-60 loss Feb. 12 at Avila.
“Avila played extremely well and got after us,” Lance said. “I told our guys that game will not be a turning point in our season. They’re going to have to make a hard, fast decision, what we want to do and where we want to go, and our guys responded.
“We got hot at the right time. At the end of February we hit a hot streak and guys started to jell and were really playing together.”
The Vikings are led by James Lane, a 6-foot-6 senior from Cape Girardeau, Mo., who received first team all-conference honors while leading the team in scoring (15.1 points per game), rebounding (8.3) and steals (1.45). Guard Brad Hamilton, a 6-foot-2 senior guard, ranks 13th in the NAIA with 86 three-pointers.
“James Lane is a high-energy, stretch-four guy,” Lance said. “He can bounce it, he can shoot it, he can post up and is an extremely active rebounder. He definitely is the temperature gauge to our team. Hamilton is a sharp shooter, and even being a two-guard, is a great playmaker.
Raviel Burton is a big, long athletic kid, who blocks shots, rebounds, scores around the basket. … Andre Scott is our glue guy. He draws our best defensive assignment night in and night out.”
Lance, in his 12th season as head coach, is Missouri Valley College through and through. He played there, and served as a student assistant, graduate assistant and full-time assistant before succeeding his coach, Tom Fifer, and becoming the school’s all-time leader in career wins with 179.
“Being a graduate of Missouri Valley, having worn the uniform, this means a great deal,” Lance said of the berth in the NAIA Tournament. “It’s my Duke or UCLA, for sure.”
▪ The Missouri Valley College Alumni Association will hold a pregame social for alumni and friends on Thursday during 3:45-5:45 p.m. at the College Basketball Experience, 1401 Grand Blvd.