Timothy Belin, Campus Carrier sports editor
After going 11-1 in the regular season, Berry’s men’s basketball team clinched its first ever Southern Athletic Association (SAA) regular season title. As a result, the Vikings will now host the SAA tournament at Berry, where they will have high hopes of doing the double.
Head basketball coach Mitch Cole said the team’s success was the culmination of a lot of hard work from the players, especially from back when they were still unsure if they would even get a season. While they had title aspirations at the start of the season, Cole said they never talked about success in those terms.
“We don’t talk a lot about winning championships, we talk about competing at a championship level every day,” Cole said. “So it’s a result of daily improvement, just constantly trying to get better one day at a time and staying connected during the process.”
Berry started strong with six consecutive wins before suffering their only loss of the season on Feb. 12 at Centre College. Though players expressed their frustration at coming so close to going undefeated, Cole said that loss helped the players rally for the second half of the season.
“We had a slip up at Centre where we weren’t quite as focused as we needed to be, but I think that game helped us stay focused the rest of the way and know that any team is capable of beating us if we let our guard down,” Cole said. “So the guys really amped it up from there and realized that every day in practice is meaningful and every game is its own game, every half, every possession. It was a good learning experience for us to have to go through that loss and bounce back the next day.”
Because the season was set up in a double-header format, Berry got immediate revenge the following day by defeating Centre, sparking a run of five consecutive wins to close out the season. Senior center Austin Brooks said this success was the result of very strong bonds within the team.
“The connection that they have with each other, it’s a good connection, unlike any other,” Brooks said. “I’ve been on many teams and this is one of the first teams that I’ve actually seen being this connected. They know where they are on the court, where they want to be and where their teammates are going to be.”
Senior shooting guard Dawson Wehunt said another contributing factor was the team’s depth, as having the ability for different players to step up every game was crucial to maintaining momentum throughout the season, and senior point guard Micah Johnson said the team was also lucky to avoid any COVID-19 complications, which gave them more opportunities to practice than some of their opponents.
As the first Berry men’s basketball team to win a SAA regular season title, several players said they now hope to have set an example for further success down the road. Johnson said that though he is proud of the team’s achievement, he cannot wait for the next teams to do even better.
“We set records for records to be broken,” Johnson said. “So we all hope later down the line, like next year and years down the path, that Berry keeps winning regular season and puts a spotlight on Berry and shows them how Vikings do it.”
The players cannot take too much time to enjoy their success, however, as their focus is now on winning the SAA tournament as well. After coming up short last season, losing the championship game to Centre by three points, senior shooting guard Drew Jones said the objective this season was to right that wrong.
“Our main goal this year was just to finish the job,” Jones said. “We were hoping that our hard work would pay off to where we got to be regular season champs, but our ultimate goal is to be conference as well, so our main thing that we just sort of stick to is finishing the job.”
As regular season champions and the number one seed, Berry will host the SAA tournament in the Cage Center Arena, an advantage Jones said could prove vital.
“That’s huge for us,” Jones said. “Right now, the only game we lost was away, so we’re undefeated at home, so that helps a lot. It’s personal for us, that’s our home court, so it just helps us and also being on the campus and hopefully having students come out and support us, it’s just all what we wanted.”
A side effect of the team’s success, however, could be the added pressure that comes with the performances they put on, according to Wehunt.
“We kind of have a target on our back because we’ve kind of ran through the regular season,” Wehunt said. “We had really just one bad game and we’ve absolutely dominated the season. I think our margin of victory is over 15 or 20, it’s pretty prominent, so I’d say we definitely have a target on our backs from being the one seed and beating people so bad, but I’m not too worried about it.”
Johnson echoed his teammate’s confidence, saying the real pressure came in the beginning of the season when the team had to consistently prove their credentials.
“I feel like there’s no pressure,” Johnson said. “The pressure was in the beginning, because we were undefeated and that was pretty much all the pressure that was hard to hold on to, but since we won the regular season all the guys are confident that we’ll win conference and we’ll keep working and strive to complete the championship game with a W.”
Brooks agreed, but cautioned against over-confidence and said the slip-up at Centre would hopefully be used to ground the players.
“It shouldn’t change up the effects so long as the guys have their minds in the right places of game by game,” Brooks said. “Who we’re playing doesn’t matter, what we’re ranked, because any team can win at the flip of a switch. We can lose if we get our minds in the wrong place, and that was shown at Centre. We weren’t practicing well that week, we were just complacent, thinking our skill is going to carry us and it obviously didn’t, so we kind of snapped back the day after, knowing we have to put in the work. And I think that one loss helps us carry us into that tournament pretty well.”
The SAA championship tournament will be held over the weekend of March 13 in the Cage Center Arena. Further details regarding times and matchups will be released at a later date on both Berry and the SAA’s websites and social media accounts.