Jacob Conway, Tigers win NAIA men’s basketball championship in blowout

Published 1:51 pm Thursday, April 4, 2019

By Kal Oakes
Georgetown News-Graphic

Dunks and athleticism were Georgetown College’s calling card all winter long as the Tigers clawed their way to NAIA’s No. 1 spot on paper.

The Tigers carved that status into heavy metal for posterity Tuesday night, and won their school’s third national title in men’s basketball, with a defensive clinic for the ages.

Georgetown held one of the nation’s most prolific outside shooting teams, Carroll College of Helena, Montana, more than 30 points below its season average in a 68-48 rout at Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City, Missouri.

“We were trying to run them off the line as best as we could, trying to keep hands up and hands high,” junior point guard Eljay Cowherd said. “We knew we were more athletic and stronger and bigger and longer than they were, so we were just trying to make sure we got up in them and got some defense in early.”

Offense followed suit and was surgical throughout.

Cowherd led four players in double figures for Georgetown (33-4), which previously won the title in 1998 and 2013. GC lost the 2016 championship in overtime.

Dominique Reid added 14 points and Troy Steward 11, while Chris Coffey combined 10 points with 15 rebounds to sew up the Chuck Taylor Award as most valuable player of the tournament.

“For the new guys, it was like this is something different,” Coffey said. “For us that had been here before, it was like, we’ve been here. We’ve lost in the championship game. We don’t want that again. So the mood going in was whoever was in our way, we were going to take them out.”

Georgetown led 35-15 at halftime and never let Carroll (29-8) creep closer than 16 points after intermission.

The Fighting Saints, who scored more than 82 points per game this season, were only 5-for-27 from 3-point range and shot 30.7 percent overall.

“Couldn’t be more happy for these guys,” GC coach Chris Briggs, who coached the Tigers to their second title in his eight seasons, said. “They’re awesome. They play together well. They love each other. They work hard. They came together and got hot at the right time, and we were able to get it done.”

Match Burnham labored feverishly for his game-high 17 points and was stymied defensively for much of the night by 6-foot-9 Brodricks Jones.

Jones, who contributed six points, six rebounds and three blocked shots, had ample help from the 6-8 Reid, 6-7 Coffey, 6-6 Joe Burton and 6-5 Jacob Conway.

“I told myself lock in, play smart and do it for my team. Sacrifice, you know? I loved every second of it,” Jones said. “We wanted to show everybody we could play defense. The whole year people said we just outscored people. As a team, we knew what we could do.”

Rather than challenge the Tigers’ reach in the paint, the Fighting Saints chose to settle for the outside shots that fell at a nation’s best 41 percent clip during the season. The hands in their face were closer and more active than to what they are accustomed.

GC’s size advantage wasn’t merely a problem for Carroll beyond the arc. The Tigers owned a 46-20 scoring edge in the paint and a 45-29 rebound disparity.

“The guys executed it perfectly. We stayed in front. We made them take tough shots,” Briggs said. “For the the most part we dominated the glass. I don’t know what the final numbers were, but I know at halftime that was pretty much the only complaint we (coaches) had.”

Georgetown held only one other opponent this season, Ohio-Chillicothe, under 50 points.

The championship run concluded with 10 consecutive wins, including five in seven days at the tournament. GC won 17 of its last 18 games.

Large leads evaporated in the past three rounds before GC held off LSU Shreveport, Arizona Christian and William Carey (Mississippi) to reach the final.

Carroll simply seemed to lack that extra gear, something the Tigers detected from reading the scouting report.

“We knew if we came out and we scored from the very beginning of the game, we would go home as champions,” Cowherd said. “We looked at the stats from the four games here and they were scoring in the 60s and 70s, so we knew all we had to do was break that. When you’re playing defense like we were playing tonight, all we needed was 68 to be champions, and we’re champions now.”

Dane Warp added 11 points for Carroll, but he and Burnham were a combined 3-for-14 from deep. Matt Wyman chipped in 10.

Burnham, Warp and Wyman combined for 54 points per game on the year. Georgetown also shut out Shamrock Campbell, who entered the night with 56 3-pointers.

“We just went out there,” Coffey said. “We knew what we were getting into. We knew what they were going to do. We played a (heck) of a game.”

Carroll led once all night: 2-0, on a Wyman basket to end an extended cold snap by both teams at the start.

The Tigers settled in with the next nine. Jones tied it after blocking a shot by Burnham. Steward strung together a two and a three. Coffey cashed in a second-chance basket off a feed from Jones.

Six straight Saint misfires preceded a put-back by Warp, and that did little to discourage the businesslike champs-in-waiting. Jones piled on two more buckets, and GC answered a pair of Burnham free throws with a 10-0 push to a 24-6 lead.

Reid brought six straight points off the bench to begin that binge. Coffey stuffed a lob from Steward – that season-long habit became a night-long trend – and Cowherd slashed for two more.

“He was phenomenal. He was fantastic,” Briggs said of Reid, one of three NCAA Division I transfers in GC’s seven-man rotation. “Gave us a huge boost off the bench. When he’s under control and when he’s focused, he is really, really good. He took what they gave him. He was strong, He attacked. Just a big-time boost for us, and just really happy for him.”

It was 26-9 at the media timeout with 6:42 remaining in the half. All but three of Carroll’s shots to that point were off target.

And Georgetown countered a modest run with the final six points of the session, taking the 20-point surplus into the locker room. Coffey and Reid provided exclamation-point jams, Reid’s becoming a 3-point play.

“Going into halftime, we knew we were up, and we knew it wasn’t going to be easy, but we just had to keep our foot on the pedal and keep going,” Coffey said. “We knew we had it about three minutes (into the second half), when they were trying to put the pressure on us and we just didn’t give up.”

Warp scored twice in slow succession, the latter off a steal by Burnham, but Steward and Cowherd raced to the rack for replies to restore the Tigers’ roar.

Only two other times did Carroll creep within 16 points. Burnham drained a step-back three to make it 45-29 with 10:58 to go, and Ife Kalejaiye nailed another for a 62-46 deficit with 2:07 to play.

“Obviously Carroll’s not a pressing team like William Carey was to be able to mount a comeback like that, but we did not want to let them get hot from three,” Briggs said. “They hit a couple, and a couple that were highly contested, too, but we were able to keep that lead and run this thing out.”

The difference between this one and earlier games in the tournament that were more adventurous than they needed to be?

“I think it was just their will to win and their want to do something special. They’ve been focused all week since we got out here. They’ve been focused on working hard, sticking together and battling through adversity,” Briggs said. “Thankfully we didn’t have much adversity tonight. It’s a lot easier on everybody when we don’t have that, but in a five-game tournament you’re going to have some tough games and some things not go your way. They stuck together through thick and thin, and we were able to get it done.”

Conway’s 3-pointer with 7:07 left and late dunks by Coffey and Steward were momentum-killers, just in case.

“All last night and all day we’ve been focused on what we had to do,” Conway said. “We know Carroll was going to play slow. We knew we had to guard the half court. When we communicate, as long and athletic as we are, we can really lock down when we need to.”

Steward, Coffey and Cowherd earned all-tournament recognition. Each took a turn as GC’s leading scorer in at least game of the tournament, along with Burton.

That balance, and lack of concern for who received the credit, characterized a magical season with a storybook ending.

“Everybody stepped up on a nightly basis,” Coffey said. “If somebody was in a drought, we just told them to keep their head up and we had their back.”

“We always tell them there’s a handful of teams out here that most likely can win it, and then there’s a lot of teams out here that are just happy to be here. We’re never going to be one of those teams that are just happy to be here,” Briggs added. “We just talked about focusing on what we’re here to do. They had a mature approach to it, and it worked out well for them.”