Central Missouri didn’t have the look of an NCAA Division II Elite Eight contender a few weeks ago.
The Mules, co-champions of the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletic Association, were beaten 84-82 by Northeastern State in the opening round of the conference tournament.
Rather than panic, the Mules remained calm. They still had an NCAA Central Regional tournament to play in the following week in Minnesota.
“We knew our season wasn’t over yet,” junior forward/center Dillon Deck said. “We just stayed positive and used the loss as a chance to get refocused.”
The Mules, 27-5, won the Central Regional with a 60-59 win over rival Northwest Missouri State, punching a ticket to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2009. They will battle Southern Connecticut State, 30-2, at noon today in a national quarterfinal at the Ford Center.
“It’s a big accomplishment to get here,” Deck said. “We had to play hard and had to fight our way through a very tough regional. It feels great to have an opportunity to compete for a championship this week.”
Defending national champion Drury is also in the tournament and is trying to become the first repeat champion since Cal State Bakersfield in 1994.
The eighth-ranked Panthers, 28-3, out of the Great Lakes Valley Conference battle No. 7 West Liberty, 29-3, at 6 tonight in a national quarterfinal.
“This was our goal before the start of the season, to try and make it back and defend our title,” Drury sophomore point guard Kameron Bundy said. “We lost some great players off last year’s team, but we also learned a lot from them.”
Both the Mules and the Panthers have a different look from a year ago.
Central Missouri coach Kim Anderson wasn’t sure what to expect. But despite losing eight seniors and having 10 new players, everything came together for the 20th-ranked Mules, who are seeking their first national title since 1984.
“We had a brand new team,” Anderson said. “I think the big key for us is that everyone bought into our system, and we found a way to play well at the right time.”
Deck is one of the new additions.
A transfer from William Jewell, Deck leads the team in scoring, averaging 13.7 points per game. Senior guard/forward Charles Hammork (12.6) and senior guard Daylen Robinson (12.4), a Kansas City native who began his career at Texas Tech, are also key contributors.
Eight other players are averaging at least 5.0 points a game for a Mules team that is cranking out 80.2 points per outing. The Mules allow 67.6.
As for Drury, coach Steve Hesser said his Panthers gained a lot from last season’s title run.
“We’ve only focused on this year,” Hesser said. “But I think last year’s title run helped mainly in the sense that these returning guys expected to win when they took the floor each game this year, and the new players learned quickly that we had that mentality.”
Bundy has been instrumental in Drury’s success, averaging 17.6 points a game and dishing out 109 assists.
Junior forward Cameron Adams averages 17.5 points and 6.1 rebounds per game. Drury averages 77.3 points a game and allows 67.2.
Central Missouri is up against a Southern Connecticut State team that has won 19 in a row. Senior guard/forward Greg Langston leads the way for the No. 4 Owls, averaging 19.8 points and 6.5 rebounds per game.
Drury is taking on the high-scoring Hilltoppers, who put up 101.5 points per game and allow 82. Seven players are scoring 10 or more points per outing, including Cedric Harris (17.4).
Central Missouri and Drury could meet for the title on Saturday in a 2 p.m. national final televised live on CBS. For now, the focus is on today.
“We’re working on putting together a good game plan,” Anderson said. “The one thing about the Elite Eight is every team is good. No one is going to sneak up on you.”