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A million to one.
That’s how much of a longshot head coach JT Burton thought his team was at the start of the year.
His St. Catharine mens’ basketball team was chosen in the preseason to finish seventh by his Mid-South Conference peers, which Burton thought was a fair assessment considering his team would be playing the 10th toughest schedule in the nation.
But he soon discovered that measuring his squad by ordinary standards was a fool’s errand.
“To be honest, I told everybody that, with our schedule and as far as the talent we had compared to the last three or four years, I didn’t think we’d be .500,” Burton said. “But this team, they were very coachable, and they liked playing with each other and for each other.
They were very resilient, and they brought it every single day in practice. They just started to believe in themselves.”
Despite such a tough schedule, the Patriots just did what they do best: they played ball. When they weren’t winning, they were taking Pikeville, the No. 3 team in the country, to overtime.
By season’s end, Burton’s squad stood at 18-12, but with a nine-point loss to Pikeville in the conference tournament, they were no sure bet to grab an at-large bid for the NAIA tournament.
Burton was confident, though, with their impressive résumé, they would find their way into the tournament.
He was informed that they were in the tournament at 6 p.m. on the day the brackets were released, but with the selection show not airing until three hours later, he was, admittedly, still “a little nervous.”
His anxiety passed when his team was announced as the 28th team into the field of 32. It was the Patriots’ second trip to the NAIA tournament, an accomplishment they had reached for the first time just two years prior.
However, Burton cringed when he realized his team’s draw: last year’s runners-up, Southwestern Assemblies of God (SAGU).
“I really didn’t want to play them,” Burton said. “I knew they had everybody coming back from last year’s team, and they were just a tough matchup for us. We like to play zone, and they like to shoot the three … but I knew we had the strength on the inside. We knew we’d have to take advantage of that.”
Part of Burton’s worries stemmed from the fact that SAGU boasted a 5-foot-10-inch guard named Dominique Rambo, last year’s co-national player of the year who would later be announced as this season’s sole winner of the award.
He averaged 23. 6 points and 3.44 steals per contest heading into the matchup.
Instead of focusing on the negatives, though, Burton told his team to just stay loose and savor the moment of playing in the national tournament.
“I just rolled the balls out there and told them to go have fun,” Burton said.
His strategy worked.
SCC held a 10-point lead heading into the locker room at halftime, and with just under four minutes left to play, they still had a 10-point advantage and looked destined to pull out their first-ever win in the NAIA tournament.
SAGU had other plans.
After a mad scramble at a comeback, SAGU cut their deficit to two with only 13 seconds remaining.
What had looked like a foregone conclusion minutes earlier turned into mass panic from there, as the Patriots would turn the ball over on the ensuing inbound pass to allow the Lions the opportunity to take the lead.
After a missed three-pointer, SCC’s Julito Hutchison grabbed the rebound and was fould, giving him the opportunity to put the game out of reach for good.
He missed them both.
Rambo took the ball coast-to-coast, but the Patriots’ Raymon Austin sealed the 99-97 victory with a block.
“To win your first game ever in the tournament like that, it was unbelievable,” Burton said. “Nobody had us winning this game, and I think a lot of people thought we shouldn’t have even gotten in to the tournament. Winning that game was a real confidence-booster for us, beating arguably best team in the tournament in the first round. We knew we had a chance to win it all after that.”
But these Patriots weren’t done making history
SCC’s opponent in the round of 16 was the Hope International University Royals, and again, Burton’s team would jump out to a lead in the first half, going up by eight at halftime.
From there, the Patriots built up a double-digit lead in the second half.
But — again — they would squander their lead, bit by bit.
With just under a minute to go, they only led by three points.
Burton stayed confident throughout his team’s struggles down the stretch, though, because he believed in their ability to play in close games. They had already played in eight games decided by five points or less.
“We played in a lot of close games this season, and I think that prepared us for the tournament,” Burton said. “We’d already been in that situation, so we were able to stay calm and not panic. We were able to execute down the stretch.”
The 79-75 victory over the Royals secured his team’s place in the Elite Eight, but that is where the magic would end for the Patriots.
Against the MidAmerica Nazarene Pioneers, the team was outrebounded 54-41 and shot 16-of-39 from the charity stripe. They would go on to lose 86-73
But this year’s team had already etched their names in the SCC history books, despite the disappointing effort in their final game.
“Winning those two games, it was big time for our program and for our players,” Burton said. “It’s very rewarding for them to see all of the hard work they put in start paying off like that.
It speaks volumes about our players, being able to win those games.”
Burton just finished his fifth season as head coach for the Patriots, but according to him, this has been the most enjoyable experience of them all.
“Coaching this team was the most fun I’ve had since I’ve been here coaching,” Burton said. “This is just a great group of kids who were very coachable. It was just really fun.”