CNU, Mount Union look to make history
By Riley Zayas
Special to D3hoops.com
FORT WAYNE, Indiana — In a season that has been recognized for its parity across conferences and across the nation, Saturday afternoon’s national title bout will follow suit.
Neither Christopher Newport nor Mount Union has ever won a national championship in men’s basketball, but exceptional seasons from both have landed the two programs in a position to make history. And only one will walk away with the crown, forever holding the distinction of being their school’s first men’s basketball national champion.
“What a basketball team they are,” Mount Union head coach Mike Fuline said of CNU on Thursday night. “They are tremendous, long, big, and strong. We’re going to show up. Hopefully we can exhale and just play.”
Indeed it will be a battle, especially if it follows the trajectory of Thursday’s national semifinals, exhilarating in nature, and decided in the final minutes. CNU overcame a four-point halftime deficit against Swarthmore, holding off a late charge from the Garnet for a 69-66 victory. Mount Union pulled off a 20-point comeback in improbable fashion, overcoming UW-Whitewater in an 83-79 victory that had more than its fair share of momentum swings.
“I don’t know if I have much to say, to be honest with you,” CNU head coach John Krikorian said with a laugh following his team’s win. “Wow. We prepared for it to be an absolute battle, and that’s exactly what it was.”
Fuline echoed Krikorian’s sentiment when asked about his team’s exceptional victory, which put Mount Union in the title game for the first time in program history.
“What a great game,” Fuline commented. “I didn’t feel like Whitewater was going to miss a shot in the first half. But it was more about us in the second half, picking up our intensity.”
These are undoubtedly uncharted waters for both programs. Neither program has ever played in a national championship game, but yet, each has a veteran core guiding its path. So in that respect, the “big moments” are not all that “big” for either of these squads.
For CNU, juniors Trey Nelson and Jahn Hines lead the way, in addition to contributors like Rodney Graves, who made both of his 3-point attempts and shot 3-for-4 from the free throw line in the win over Swarthmore.
Hines and Nelson created a high-low matchup problem for the opposition Thursday night, with Hines hitting a number of outside shots while the defense shaded towards Nelson in the low post. And when Hines became the primary target of the defense, the ball found its way into Nelson’s hands on a number of occasions. Both finished with 20-plus points, and will be vital components in the Captains’ approach to Saturday’s matchup.
“Trey brought the defense on him,” Hines remarked. “Once I saw an opening, I took it.”
“Openings” are not something Mount Union gives often as a passionate, defensive-minded squad, who displayed its abilities on that end of the floor in the second half against Whitewater. Though the Purple Raiders struggled out of the gates, and Whitewater converted on 57.1 percent of its first-half shots, Mount Union refused to fade. And a lot of it went back to the toughness and resilience of Fuline’s battle-tested unit.
“This group has prided itself on the defensive side of the floor and the passion that they play with,” Fuline said. “We’re a tough team, and I don’t think we were playing as tough as we could [in the first half]. We talked about it at halftime; ‘It’s 9 o’clock. By 10 o’clock this game is going to be over. What are you going to regret?’ You can’t regret anything.”
The Purple Raiders are certainly playing with nothing to lose and everything to gain, as Saturday’s matchup nears. They too have veteran leaders, including senior guard Collen Gurley, who led the comeback with emotion and scored 15 points. His backcourt teammate, Jeffery Mansfield, is also a senior, and came through with 20 points in the victory. Just for good measure, junior forward Christian Walker put 29 on the board against Whitewater.
Everywhere you look on the roster, there seems to be a junior, senior or graduate student. But it is the selfless mentality of those upperclassmen that has allowed Mount Union to form the cohesive unit that never blinked, even when down by double digits in a Final Four setting.
“Our program, from the beginning when we started this thing, has always preached family,” Fuline said. “You have to believe in each other. The best teams average five guys in double figures. That’s always been our goal.”
CNU has three averaging double figures in points, and two others above eight points per game. But this run for the Captains, much like the Purple Raiders, goes beyond what numbers reveal. CNU entered the postseason hungry for a run to Fort Wayne, having narrowly missed out on a spot last season in a two-point, Elite Eight loss to Marietta.
“I think it is mostly the experience,” Hines said, when asked about the differences between last year’s team and the current one he is starring for. “We added a few more pieces, like Rodney Graves and my brother, Collin. The competitiveness is inside us, as you saw. We were not letting go of that game.”
Now the focus turns to Saturday. With a full day off between the semifinals and the championship, running on adrenaline and momentum is not a viable approach. In fact, Krikorian said that the focus needs to be on staying relaxed, and putting Thursday’s dramatic win behind them.
“What we’ve learned is that you can’t just keep it going,” Krikorian said. “Whether the game was tomorrow or next week, we have to relax now. We have to calm down, catch our breath. We have to hydrate these guys. There are some special things we do to put this behind us, so that whenever we play next, we’ll be ready to be our best on that day.”
As Fuline added late in his news conference, there’s an emotion that comes with knowing the final day of your regular season. But in many respects, that is the greatest success. Saturday is the end of the 2022-23 D-III men’s basketball season, and the finale is set to produce some serious fireworks.
“Here’s the one thing I know that I remember on our state championship team when I was a high school coach in 2010,” Fuline said. “It’s awesome to know your last day with a group of men.
“This will be our last day, win or lose, together. That’s a great feeling.”