Making travel arrangements to Kansas City this time of year is becoming old hat for Shawn Huse and the Montana State University-Northern men’s basketball program.
On Wednesday afternoon, the Lights found out they will be making their third straight trip and their fourth in the last five years to the NAIA national tournament. Northern, which finished third in the Frontier Conference regular season standings, and lost to UM-Western last Saturday night in the Frontier semifinals, received an at-large bid to the 2013 national tournament. The Lights went 23-9 overall this season and were one of four teams from the Frontier to reach next week’s field in Kansas City.
“It’s unbelievable to think about it right now,” Huse said. “Walking out of that arena (Kansas City) last year was a big slap of reality knowing we were about to lose eight seniors and have to rebuild this team. And if anybody would have told me at that time that we were going back there again in 2013 I wouldn’t have believed it.
“And even from where we started this season,” he continued. “I mean, we might be the only team in the country that lost our own intra-squad scrimmage (laughing). We didn’t look like a national tournament team back in early October. So that’s a credit to these guys and how hard they’ve worked and how far they’ve come this year. I’m just so impressed with this group and I’m so happy for them to have this opportunity.”
As for MSU-N’s opponent, the Lights found that out on Wednesday night. The No. 24 Lights will take on No. 9 Evangel of Missouri. The Crusaders (24-6) are the No. 9 seed in the tournament, and they hail from Springfield, Mo., and the Heart of America Conference. This will be the second straight year in which the Lights face a team from Missouri in the opening round as they lost to Columbia of Missouri 58-52 last March. Columbia is the No. 1 seed, and is the only unbeaten team in next week’s national tournament. Columbia and Evangel don’t play in the same league however.
The Crusaders were the champions of the Heart of America Conference, and they have no common opponents with MSU-N this season. Evangel also reached the national tournament a year ago, winning in the first round before being knocked out in the Sweet 16.
As noted, it has been a banner year for the Frontier Conference. Rocky Mountain College finished sixth in the regular season, then knocked off Westminster, Lewis-Clark State and Western to claim the league’s automatic bid. The Battlin’ Bears are in the tourney for the first time since they captured the 2009 national championship, and they will face No. 2 seed Lindsey Wilson on Thursday night. LC State is seeded fifth in Kansas City and will square off against Culver-Stockton Thursday afternoon, while Western earned a No. 14 seed and will play Philander Smith out of Arkansas Thursday afternoon as well.
The Lights meanwhile, are excited to be headed back to Kansas City, especially with a relatively young and new team. Only senior Devin Jackson, junior Mike LaValley and sophomores Corbin Pearson and Pat Jensen were on last year’s national tournament team — a team which captured two straight Frontier Conference titles.
“This team didn’t fold,” Huse said. “Never once did they quit fighting for this, and there were times when it looked like we were going to go on a big slide and play our way out of this thing. But they kept coming back and finding ways to win big games. This team proved us all wrong this year by getting to this point. So I’m just really impressed with this group and so proud of them.”
The Lights and Crusaders are slated to tip off at 9:30 p.m. M.S.T. Wednesday night at the Kansas City Municipal Auditorium. Northern is slated to leave for the national tournament on Saturday. There will be a sendoff open to the public on Friday from 5-7 p.m. at the Armory Gymnasium.