To Texas Wesleyan coach Brennen Shingleton, the NAIA national championship is the toughest basketball tournament in America, requiring one team to win five games in six days.
It’s not necessarily the best assembled squad that can do that, but rather the grittiest.
After watching the No. 3 Rams scratch and claw their way to a national semifinals victory on Monday in Kansas City, Mo., it’s apparent they just might be that team.
Wesleyan has 40 more minutes of basketball to play after coming all the way back from a 16-point deficit, then overcoming two turnovers down the stretch to extend the game to overtime and ultimately defeating No. 1 William Penn 83-82 at Municipal Auditorium.
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The toughest team wins this tournament. That’s why I’ll take my guys any day of the week.
Texas Wesleyan coach Brennen Shingleton
Dion Rogers hit a baseline jumper with 2.3 seconds left in the extra period to send the Rams to their second appearance in the national-championship game.
Wesleyan (28-7) will meet Life (Ga.) at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Municipal Auditorium for the NAIA Division I title. The game will be broadcast live on ESPN3.
“Our conditioning came in in the second half, and we gutted it out,” Shingleton said. “We aren’t very good individually, but good as a team. The parts just fit.
“The toughest team wins this tournament. That’s why I’ll take my guys any day of the week.”
The Rams will be seeking the school’s second national championship. Wesleyan won it all in 2006.
Najeal Young led the Rams with 21 points and 12 rebounds. Rogers and Ryan Harris each had 18.
The Rams didn’t shoot the ball well, hitting only 35 percent of their shots to William Penn’s 48 percent. They trailed 51-35 with 16:22 to play or falling behind 40-30 at halftime.
Texas Wesleyan led 72-68 late in regulation, but the Statesman rallied and forced overtime.
After a Rams turnover, Kevin Smith’s two free throws with 20 seconds left gave William Penn an 82-79.
Harris’ basket with 14 second to play cut Wesleyan’s deficit to 82-81. A missed free throw by William penn gave the Rams one last chance.
When Rogers found himself with the ball on the sideline he knew what to do with it.
He turned toward the baseline, stopped and floated a shot that found the bottom of the net.
For Rogers, the game-winner represented a bit of redemption. He committed one of those crucial turnovers down the stretch in regulation.
“He’s a tough kid from New Jersey,” Shingleton said. “He had a horrible turnover at the end, but there was no doubt to our team that he was going to make a play.”
Though Wesleyan didn’t shoot well, the Rams forced 22 turnovers. The Rams also hit nine more free throws and had 12 more attempts.
He’s a tough kid from New Jersey. He had a horrible turnover at the end, but there was no doubt to our team that he was going to make a play.
Brennen Shingleton on Dion Rogers’ game-winning shot with 2.3 seconds left
“We found ourselves uncomfortable in the first half, and a little bit out of our rhythm trying to find some offense,” Shingleton said.
There was of course not much time to revel in triumph.
The Rams have one more to play, one of only two teams left standing in NAIA Division I. Life (26-10) toppled the tournament’s overall No. 1 seed LSU-Alexandria, unbeaten in 34 games before Monday.
“Both teams will be tired … mentally exhausted,” Shingleton said. “We’ll be a little sluggish, but we’ve always been a tough team that can respond.
“They’ve got 40 more minutes of basketball.”