East Mississippi Community College men’s basketball coach Mark White compares the situation his team is in to that of Lehigh University or Norfolk State University.
Each of those squads was a massive underdog but each pulled upsets Friday night in the second round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
White knows his No. 15 Lions have been keeping tabs on that tournament. He hopes his squad will be able to draw on those magical moments when it takes on top-ranked South Plains College (Texas) in the opening round of the NJCAA national championship tournament at 10 a.m. Tuesday at the Hutchinson Sports Arena in Hutchinson, Kansas.
“There is a totally different mind-set when you are coaching and playing knowing that this could be your final game of the season,” White said. “The mind-set is different. The energy level is different. Everyone plays at a different level when you play on this stage.
“The thing you have to do is to stay within yourself. Defense and rebounding are the big reasons why we have gotten here. You can’t change anything now. We have been stressing in practice, staying within yourself and doing what you do. You don’t get here by accident. You get here because you deserve to be here.”
EMCC (23-4) has reached the national championship tournament for a third straight year. It had to win three games in four days, including a 63-49 victory against Southern University of Shreveport (La.), to win the Region XXIII tournament in Clinton to make the return trip.
“It gets more and more difficult each year to win the region and make this tournament,” White said. “This is what people who are not involved in sports do not understand. The (Los Angeles) Lakers won the (NBA) championship the first time. The second time, even though they won it, it was much harder. The third straight time, they couldn’t do it.
“When the target is on your back, each year as the head coach, you take more pride and satisfaction in what you are doing. For the guys, there is a great sense of accomplishment because you know the hard work they have put in to reach this point.
“People don’t understand how truly hard we work. We are very demanding. When we got back to practice Wednesday night, we had a meeting in the team room. I had posted the story about our region championship on the wall. I asked the players if all of the hard work was worth it and each of them said, ‘No doubt, it was all worth it.’ ”
EMCC will join New York’s Monroe College (30-3) as the only teams to appear in the national championship tournament for the third year in a row.
“Not to take anything away from Monroe because they have a great program, but our challenge is so much harder,” White said. “Monroe plays a four-team region tournament and then they cross with another region. Our region set up is as a true tournament format. We have 18 teams in our region.
“To win our region championship, you have to win three games in three or four nights in a true tournament format. We play on a neutral floor. To have gone each of the last two years and to have been able to defend the region championship is quite an accomplishment.”
In Clinton, EMCC defeated Jones Junior College (78-68) and Pearl River C.C. (65-52) before beating Southern for a second straight year in the championship game.
The victory against PRCC avenged a defeat one week earlier in the state tournament. The Lions have won three straight region tournaments and three straight North Division tournaments, but they have yet to win a state tournament in that stretch.
“A lot of people ask about winning the state tournament,” White said. “We coach them to win it (the state tournament) and we play to win it. However, there is something different about playing when you know you have another tournament behind it. There is a different mind-set and energy when you know with the next loss, the season is all for naught.
“If you look at our margin of victories (in the region tournament), we won by 10, 13, and 14 points. The guys know when we go to Clinton it’s a totally different scenario. The first game is the difficult one. Once you get past that, there is still pressure on you, but it is a good kind of pressure. We want to win every time out, however, it just happens that our guys play a whole lot better when it is the ultimate stage and there is no margin for error.”
For EMCC fans, the expectation of region championships is a new reality. The Lions began the season ranked as high as seventh nationally. They lost two games early against out-of-state competition, but responded with 16 straight wins and a third straight division title.
“The school had won 36 games in the six seasons prior to our arrival,” White said. “In the two years before we got here, EMCC was 6-43 and 1-23 inside the division. To be able to reverse that and to go 75-16 in each of the past three seasons is remarkable. We have been 33-3 in the division during that time. We take a lot of pride in that.”
The 16-team, double-elimination national championship tournament is broken into four four-team sub-regions. South Plains, Monroe College, and Indian Hills C.C.-Ottumwa (Iowa) (30-3) are in EMCC’s sub-region.
South Plains is in the national championship tournament for the first time since winning the 2008 championship.
The winner of the sub-region will advance to play in the national semifinals Friday.
“Our draw is the toughest draw, no question about that,” White said. “We open with the West Texas Region. That region has been in the championship game each of the last five seasons, and won it three times. We have a huge challenge ahead. However, if you want to win the title, you have to play these people at some time.
“The top team in the nation lost their first two games last year. Our guys know that. They know what is possible. Basically, what we have been asked to do is similar to playing the Southeastern Conference in the BCS (football) championship game.
“However, the thing is to do what you do. Don’t try to be anything different.”
EMCC is allowing a little more than 60 points per game. Southern Shreveport managed 83 points in its region tournament opener before being held to 49 in the championship game. South Plains is averaging 87.4 ppg.
Despite the numbers and the ranking, the Lions will be ready. EMCC men’s basketball will try to go where football went this past fall and try to grab the school’s first national championship.
“Our guys deserve everything they have gotten,” White said. “They deserve the region championship. They deserve that third ring. They have put in the time and the effort. There is so much pride and enjoyment in seeing them succeed based on what I know they have invested. To know where the program was and to know where it is now is truly an amazing story.”
Scott was sports editor for The Dispatch.