Texas Wesleyan’s Dion Rogers sent a message with the very first shot of the 80th NAIA Tournament championship game.
Rogers swished a deep three-pointer from the corner, and he would keep firing shots over, around and through defenders in leading the Rams to an 86-76 victory over Life (Ga.) University for the NAIA Tournament championship on Tuesday night at Municipal Auditorium.
Rogers finished with 28 points and was selected the tournament’s MVP after averaging 21.0 points for the five games, including the game-winning basket in overtime of the Rams’ semifinal victory over William Penn on Monday night.
“I took that first shot and made sure everything was feeling good,” Rogers said. “That opened everything up for me to drive and do everything else.”
The championship was the second in Texas Wesleyan history, giving the Rams, 29-7, a trophy to put in the case in Fort Worth alongside the one they won in 2006. But this one came a lot easier than the 67-65 victory on Ben Hunt’s buzzer-beater 11 years ago.
After Life, 26-11, cut Texas Wesleyan’s 12-point halftime lead to 49-44 with 11 minutes to play, Rams coach Brennen Shingleton called time and had a word with his team, which had grown cautious.
“We were concentrating on the clock, we weren’t concentrating on possessions, and we needed to get back to playing possessions,” said Shingleton, who was chosen NAIA national coach of the year after the game. “It’s human nature, and we were fighting human nature. “
The Rams reverted to playing fast and loose, and four different players — Najeal Young, Rogers, Ryan Harris and Naiel Smith — would score during a 10-0 run, and Texas Wesleyan would lead by as many as 17 before cutting down the nets.
“We’re used to people making runs at us,” said Rogers, a senior from North Brunswick, N.J. “All you’ve got to do is stay focused mentally, lock down on defense, and one stop turns into another.”
Rogers was a model of consistency during the tournament, scoring 22 points against Dalton (Ga.) State, 18 against The Masters and 18 against William Penn. before exploding for 28.
“He’s just a tough kid,” Shingleton said. “He wants to win. He’s quiet, but he’s confident. At the end of the day, he’s somebody I love being around because he never wavers.”
Life was bidding for the fourth championship in school history and first since 2000, but after winning its last three games by two points each, including an upset of top-seeded and previously unbeaten LSU Alexandria in the semifinals, the Running Eagles couldn’t crack Texas Wesleyan’s defense.
Life, which made a desultory eight of 28 shots, including three of 15 from three-point range in the first half, shot just 36 percent from the field in the game. The Eagles were led by NAIA national player of the year Dalarian Williams’ 25 points and Zach Landis’ 21 points, 11 rebounds and three steals.
“Offense wasn’t the problem,” Life coach Keith Adkins said. “As much as we struggled offensively, we had no answer for them and their quickness. Their guards are just very, very good, and it was a well-deserved victory for Texas Wesleyan.”
In addition to Rogers’ 28 points, Harris scored 21 and Smith added 17 for Texas Wesleyan.
“I’m so happy,” Shingleton said, “because these kids did stuff right all year long. The good guys won today.”
▪ Though the announced attendance for Tuesday’s final was a modest 3,123, the NAIA said 39,093 attended the six-day tournament, the most since 2010.