By BRAD KEITH
EVANSVILLE, Ind. (March 25, 2015) — After a raucous victory celebration following an epic South Central Region final in front of an explosive full-house crowd at Wisdom Gym, after a week-long layoff that included travel from Stephenville to basketball haven Evansville, after opening ceremonies and practices inside the beautiful Ford Center, after everything that comes along with advancing to the NCAA Division II Elite Eight, it’s back to basketball.
Do-or-die basketball. With the national championship just three wins away. March Madness on the grandest of Division II scales.
Tarleton State (30-3) and Southeast Region champ Mount Olive (NC) (31-3) are among the last eight standing from among 319 Division II men’s basketball teams, and it’s only fitting they are tipping off the round of four national quarterfinals inside the Ford Center at noon today.
Fitting because the team’s made their first trip to the Elite Eight together in 2005, when Tarleton narrowly missed meeting Bryant in the semifinals. The Texans beat Cal Poly Pomona, but Mount Olive fell to Bryant (RI) in the adjacent quarterfinal matchup. Bryant eliminated Tarleton and ultimately lost to Virginia Union in the championship.
The Tarleton-UMO matchup is also fitting as the tipoff to the 2015 Elite Eight because both schools are hoping to win the national championship for the first time. It’s Tarleton’s third trip to the biggest of small school dances – the Texans made it and lost in the quarterfinals to Stonehill (Mass.) – and UMO’s second.
Each team is shooting guard driven, Tarleton by South Central Region Championship MVP Mo Lee, also an All-Lone Star Conference and All-South Central Region selection. The Bronx, New York native averages 15.2 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.8 assists.
Mount Olive is led by Conference Carolinas Player of the Year Dontrell Brite, undersized at 5-9 but far from under-productive with averages of 14.1 points and 5.6 assists per contest.
Both teams are more about balance on the offensive end, and if Tarleton has an advantage, it’s on the defensive side. The Texans have the top scoring defense among Elite Eight teams, as they surrender just 60.2 points per game. Not that UMO is shabby on the defensive side, allowing 66.3 points.
The Trojans score 79 points to Tarleton’s 74.5, and other stats are also similar between the regional champs. Even their seasons have paralleled one another, with Tarleton winning 12 straight, dropping two of three, winning 14 straight then falling in a conference tournament semifinal before winning all three regional playoffs. Mount Olive started off 9-0, lost two of four, then won 17 straight before falling in a conference final and also bouncing back with three regional wins.
The winner takes on Indiana (Pa.) or Azusa Pacific (Calif.) in a semifinal at 6 p.m. Thursday. Those teams square off at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, with other quarterfinals that evening featuring Southern New Hampshire against Florida Southern at 6 p.m. and Bellarmine (Ky.) against Minnesota St-Moorhead at 8:30 p.m.