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Campus News

Fighting Owls Become National Champions

by Grace Hatton, Reverb editor

Athletes, Brothers and Champions. When speaking of the Owls, those words, after 30 years of faded hopes and losing sprees, can now be used to describe our men’s basketball team, which proved that, despite obstacles, an underdog can play with the best and emerge victorious.

On February 28 the Wilson Men’s Basketball team traveled to Pennsylvania to compete in the USCAA division two national championships tournament as the ninth seed in a tournament consisting of ten teams. Only a few days later, after defeating the tenth seed Penn State Fayette 76-68 in a final battle of the underdogs, the men’s basketball team returned to campus as national champions.

Warren Wilson has had a basketball program for over four decades, but during that history a Wilson basketball team has never won a post-season tournament. The men’s basketball program has experienced a long struggle on its way to boasting a championship team including a 57 game losing streak in the 1990s.

The current men’s basketball team has enjoyed a winning regular season with a record of 15-10 and an eight game winning streak to finish the regular season under the direction of new head coach Greg Neeley. During the USCAA (United States Collegiate Athletics Association) championship the men’s team won all four of their games giving them a final record of 19-10, stretching their eight game winning streak to twelve and earning them a spot in Wilson athletic history by winning the first ever postseason national championship for a Wilson basketball team.

Neeley credits this winning season and momentous win to his team’s unselfish style of play.

“I do think that our team chemistry has been a big advantage for us,” Neeley said. “Our guys genuinely care about being good teammates and have been willing to sacrifice for the betterment of the team.”

James Raysean Love, a senior player on the team, echoes Neeley’s sentiment and believes this year’s success was thanks to the commitment of the players to one another.

“We had honest relationships with each other,” Love said. “And though we didn’t always see eye to eye, though there were times when we weren’t always in agreement with decisions that individuals on the team made, both in their personal lives and on the court, we stayed the course—we stayed true to what we were trying to accomplish as a team, and that was to win a national championship. We were never un-united. We are a family.”

Junior Timur Oktay also sees the team as family.

“I can definitely say that I imagine our team as though it’s a big family with 13 brothers who love to do only one thing, which is playing basketball,” says Oktay.

Another contributing factor to the men’s basketball success this year has been the five senior players, Love, Anthony Barringer, Dan Jackson, Patrick Allbright and Dylan Johnson, who have made a significant impact on the court. In the USCAA tournament three of these seniors were honored as Love was named Most Valuable Player of the tournament, Barringer and junior Rashad Ali were named to the All-Tournament team, and Dylan Johnson and sophomore Ty Johnson were named Academic All-Americans.

“The work ethic and drive of our seniors is a big reason for our success,” Neeley said. “Each one of our seniors brings a unique skill set physically and emotionally, and their ability to mesh and push our team has been tremendous.”

For many of the departing seniors not only are they taking a title of being a national champion with them beyond Wilson, but they’re also taking a set of close knit relationships developed through the basketball program.

“The relationships I’ve formed with these men are priceless,” Love said. “We’ve laughed together, fought, cried, and supported one another in the subtlest ways. I couldn’t have known that I would meet such quality human beings of high character.”

As far as the team’s success at the USCAA championship, the players are thrilled with their win.

“I still cannot believe that we did this,” Oktay said. “Because it’s just like a dream come true! And I feel like my feet don’t touch the ground while I’m walking. I’m absolutely flying!”

The campus community came out in strength to support the team during the tournament with a pep rally organized as a send off for the boys prior to the tournament. All of the games were broadcast on projectors in Bryson Gym and Canon Lounge, and a bus full of students drove up to Pennsylvania on Saturday morning to watch the men’s team compete in their final, and in the end, winning match against Penn State Fayette.

“The support and love that we received from the institution, our peers, our families, and the larger community, my goodness, it is amazing,” Love said. “The support meant the world to us as a team. We are very grateful. And I am so glad and happy that this school can be proud of something that the Men’s basketball team accomplished.”

Thanks to the men’s basketball team’s hard work and dedication this season and during the USCAA tournament our college can say something to them that we’ve never been able to say before: welcome home champions.

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