There are a scant few teams in the MIAA that have played better than the Emporia State men have over the final 10 games of the regular season.
ESU is the only team outside the conference’s top three that finished above .500 in that stretch.
The Hornets are certainly hoping to see that trend continue as they open the MIAA Tournament Wednesday at Kansas City’s Municipal Auditorium.
Their first round opponent will also be a very familiar one, as eighth-seeded ESU will face off with ninth seed Northeastern State. Two of ESU’s last five games have been victories over the Riverhawks.
That will surely be something that NSU head coach Mark Downey and his players will look to correct.
“When you face a team three times in four weeks, it’s a different situation than (if) you’re seeing them for a first time or even a second time,” ESU head coach Craig Doty said. “We know each other very well. They know us at the same level that we know them. It’s just going to come down to execution.”
That execution may be trickier than usual for the Hornets, who are seeing more and more players succumb to injury or illness. The Hornets will be thin at guard, where Kam Rowan and Malik Hluchoweckyj, both of whom have started over lengthy stretches this year, are hobbled.
“We have more walking boots on this team than we have healthy legs,” Doty said. “But our guys have found ways, they’ve battled and they’ve had a no-excuse mentality. That’s allowed them to take control of the season down the stretch, win big games, double the total wins on the season in conference play from the previous year, get a bid to the MIAA Tournament and play in Kansas City. These are all special things that this team has accomplished and hopefully they’re not done yet.”
That determination, as much as execution, will play a decisive factor as to who advances beyond the opening round of play.
“It feels great to continue to play into March,” senior forward Hassan Thomas said. “Just the way that we’ve come together, I really see the sense of urgency. You can see it everyone’s eye that it could be their last game. We’ve got six seniors on the team. We all want to continue to play as long as we can with each other. We don’t want these practices and these games to end.”
Thomas has been one of the steadiest performers down the stretch for ESU, averaging 12.2 points and 6.3 rebounds during the Hornets’ last 10, both numbers above his season totals. Thomas, with Kooper Glick and Julius Jackson, will be looked at for much of the Hornets’ offensive production, though Sawyer Glick, among the top active Division II 3-point shooters will also take his shots along the way.
Kooper Glick scored a career-high 35 points Saturday against Central Oklahoma. Jackson has topped the 20-point mark in 10 of his last 11 contests.
“(We can’t) take any possession for granted ... any team for granted,” Doty said. “We’ve beat Northeastern State two times, both were dogfights and to beat a team three times is a difficult task and we’re going to have to play very well every single possession of this game. Everything’s do or die. We’ve got six seniors whose careers (are) on the line every single play. They should naturally come out with a sense of urgency and have that understanding. We saw it in our last game versus Central Oklahoma and we need to see that same effort, focus and intensity in the MIAA Tournament.”
It will take that focus, intensity and the desire to play for the collective unit that will grant the Hornets an opportunity for a postseason run.
“It’s something we’ve been working for the last couple months,” Glick said. “I just can’t wait to get out there on the Municipal court and play with my brothers. We’ve just got to band together ... be all for each other.”
Then if that’s good enough for Wednesday, it will certainly take that to create some more March magic on Thursday, as the winner between ESU and NSU will face top-seeded and undefeated Northwest Missouri State in the next round.
“There’s still some room for us to take out some mistakes and become better,” Thomas said. “Peaking at the right time is key and we’ve been playing well. I feel like we can continue to peak, get even higher than where we are.”
Tipoff between the Hornets and Riverhawks is scheduled for noon Wednesday at Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City, Mo.
Other MIAA Tournament games for Wednesday: Lindenwood men vs Southwest Baptist, 2:15 p.m.; Nebraska-Kearney women vs Missouri Western, 6 p.m.; Central Oklahoma women vs Missouri Southern, 8:15 p.m.