Jana Morning, Campus Carrier staff writer
The Berry men’s basketball team went head-to-head with the Hendrix Warriors last Friday, March 12th in the semi-finals of the Southern Athletic Association (SAA) Tournament.
Going into the first of two rounds of the tournament, Berry (11-1) was declared regular season champs, finishing in the #1 spot after winning all but one game (opponent). On the opposite end, Hendrix (6-4) was the #4 seed entering the tournament, losing to the Vikings twice when they last faced-off in the Cage Center.
Despite soccer, baseball, football, volleyball, softball, and men’s and women’s lacrosse teams also competing on the same day, accompanied by the fact that outside spectato were unable to attend due to COVID-19 restrictions, the game still had a surprising number of attendees. 375 students, faculty and staff cameready cheer the men’s basketball team straight into Championship Sunday.
The game started off quick. Straight out of the gate, Berry and Hendrix were swapping baskets on each side of the floor. The Vikings continued to trail by a margin of 4 to 8 points around the halfway mark, before the Warriors started to create some distance.
Hendrix honcho, Seth Stanley, was the thorn in the Viking’s side throughout the 40 minutes. Stanley averaged 18.5 points a game and shot 33% from three going into the competition. Going into halftime, Hendrix held the lead 32-20.
Fans expected Berry to come out with a head full of steam and take the lead after suffering blows from the first half. However, the Vikings trailed the Warriors the entirety of the second half, only cutting the deficit within five during the last two minutes of competition.
Freshman, Chase Ellis hit both of his 11th and 12th free-throws of the contest to cut the score to just a one-possession game with around 1:15 to go, after battling back from, the largest, 18-point deficit.
After a Hendrix turnover and steal from Berry, Rob Mbenoun drove to the basket to the basket, got to the paint, and kicked it out to a wide-open Ellis on the perimeter for the first made three-pointer of the game for Berry’s men. The three-pointer gave Berry a 62-21 lead with just over 40-seconds remaining.
The crowd erupted and took to its feet as the Vikings took their very first lead of the game since the 2-0 start after tip-off. Not only were the emotions of the crowd evident, but Ellis and his teammates pumped their fists triumphantly as they took control of the game in what seemed to be its final seconds.
After a timeout called by Hendrix and a perfectly executed play, #42 for Hendrix, Carl Fitch, dropped in a lay-up of his own, while drawing a foul to go to the free throw to for the opportunity to complete a three-point play the old fashion way.
Fitch missed the free throw as Berry’s student section, also known as The Shipyard, were loud and proud attempting to distract the Hendrix player in the stands behind the opponent’s basket. The ball was rebounded by Ellis as soon-to-be Coach of the Year, Mitch Cole, called his final timeout of the game with 20 seconds to go.
The entire crowd was on their feet, including the players of the upcoming contest featuring #2 Oglethorpe University vs. Birmingham-Southern College (#3). Was Berry men’s basketball going to pull off the comeback of the season?
Coming out of the timeout, Berry trailed 63-62. Seniors, Drew Jones, Micah Johnson, and Austin Brooks, along with transfer junior, Michael Johnson, and freshman, Ellis took to the hardwood for the final play of the game.
Regular spectators for Berry men’s basketball know by now that Brooks is the big man inside that his teammates usually look to score in that game situation. However, Ellis caught the ball on the perimeter, drove, spun, and laid it up to put the Vikings up 64-63 with 12 seconds remaining.
The crowd erupted in cheers as Hendrix called a timeout in order to make a final attempt at regaining the lead in the final seconds of the contest.
Hendrix leading scorer, Stanley, received the ball inbounds, dribbled up the court, dished to his teammate in the lane who was met by Brooks who forced the jump ball with 1.1 seconds left. The possession arrow pointed in the Warrior’s favor.
After a brief timeout, the last second heave by Stanley was barely a miss, hitting the back iron, and securing the SAA semi-final win for the Vikings.
Ellis finished with the game-high 21 points, going 5-for-5 from the field and 10-for-12 from the charity stripe. Ellis said he was nervous when Hendrix took an early double-digit lead, but as time went on he and his teammates found their groove, letting the game come to them.
“There was part of me that wanted to play relaxed, but there was another part of me that wanted to be a dog every play,” Ellis said. “Even though I’m a freshman, my teammates and coaches trusted in me the entire game. We played extremely hard and eventually came out with the win.”
Mbenoun trailed Ellis, tacking on a double-double, 12 points and 10 rebounds. Michael Johnson also dropped in 11 points of his own.
Despite the Vikings worse three-point shooting performance of the year, shooting only 9.1%, their efforts elsewhere on the court were good enough to secure the win and send the Vikings to the SAA Championship.
In an equally as exciting, but not quite in the same nail-biting fashion as Saturday’s match-up, Berry went on to defeat Oglethorpe in the championship game 72-58 on Sunday afternoon.
With just over 150 fans in attendance, the Vikings laid it all on the line for what would be their final game of the season, as the NCAA cancelled March Madness for Division III teams.
The Vikings led by ten at half-time and would hold on to their lead the majority of the competition. Unlike the previous game, where freshman Chase Ellis took control of the Vikings crew, Berry relied heavily on its seniors to secure the win against their #2 Petrel (9-6) opponent.
Mbenoun, Brooks, Johnson, and Jones, all seniors and all scoring double-digits in their final game to contribute to the championship win.
“I believe we prepared from the very start of the season,” Jones said. “We always said we had all the pieces to win it this year and we finished the job.”
With nearly identical stats, Mbenoun finished with 14 points and six rebounds, Brooks followed with 13 points and eight rounds, Johnson finished with 12 points and 6 rebounds, while Jones tacked on 11 points with 6 rebounds as well.
Ellis was named to the All-Tournament team, while Mbenoun was named Tournament MVP. Another four Vikings received All-SAA Conference honors, including Micah Johnson as Defensive Player of the Year with an All-Conference honorable mention. Michael Johnson received Newcomer of the Year. Jones earned second-team recognition, and Brooks earned first-team All-Conference honors. A decorated championship team to say the very least.
Johnson, Mbenoun, Jones, Wehunt, and Brooks make up the senior class for the Vikings and have each played important roles in one of the best seasons in Berry basketball history. The nearly undefeated Vikings team gives a lot of credit to their coaching staff, especially to head coach, Mitch Cole.
“Coach Cole is different from almost every coach I’ve had,” Dawson Wehunt, the only remaining senior from the original class of 2021 recruits said. “He never talks down to players. Everything with him is brutally honest, but it’s a conversation and always seems to be positive. He always talks to us about being together and next man up, and I think that showed more than ever in the tournament this year.”
The Vikings ended the season 13-1 overall, ranked 12th nationally in Division-III NCAA play.