The Maryville College Scots earned Head Coach Randy Lambert his 700th career victory on Friday night, before turning the entire weekend into a celebration with a USA South Conference Tournament Championship on Saturday.
Maryville upended the Covenant College Scots, 96-77, inside Boydson Baird Gymnasium. The win earns the Scots an automatic bid in the NCAA Tournament, as the 38-year head coach will lead MC to its 19th tournament appearance in his career.
"Win 700 was important to a lot of people – basically my family and friends – but 701 was very important to [this team]," Lambert said. "I think they played that way. They played really well. What a great start that we had."
That start was a furious one, as Maryville jumped to a 14-5 lead in the first four minutes. The Scots shot 6-of-6 to start the game with six assists, as Maryville's Dante Hoppa had seven of the first 14 points. He was 3-of-3, while adding a pair of assist on the other three baskets.
They turned that into a 21-5 lead just two minutes later, before fighting off a pair of first-half runs.
Covenant would rally a total of five times in the game, as Maryville would answer each run with a flurry of their own.
"What I liked about the game is that Covenant made some nice runs, but we always responded in a positive way," Lambert said. "We got up early and had a great start, but Covenant comes back. We made another little run, and at the end of the half, Covenant comes back. I thought our second half was exceptional. We did a great job of sharing the basketball and made some terrific decisions against their pressure. It just seemed like we always found the open man. It was a lot of fun."
Maryville would lead by only six at the break, before shooting 51.5 percent in the second half to pull away, outscoring the Georgian Scots, 47-34.
Hoppa had a team-leading 19 points to go with five assists, three rebounds, two steals and a block, as he averaged 14.3 points and 4.3 rebounds in the tournament. Those numbers would earn him the Most Valuable Player accolade in the championship.
"I had to come out with an attitude," Hoppa said. "I, personally, didn't feel like I played very well in the semifinals. I owed it to my coaches and my brothers – my teammates. I had to show up and get the game started for my teammates to know, 'Hey, Hop's here ready to play.' They came in and played with that same attitude."
"It's a loss of words," Nokes said. "We prepared and prepared, as we practiced all this. Just finally getting to win and cut down the nets with all my teammates, there's no better feeling. It's crazy. I'm at a loss of words."
However, for the Scots, the celebration will be much like Coach Lambert's 700th win on Friday night – short-lived. The team has already punched their ticket, and both Nokes and Hoppa are ready to make a run.
Maryville will find where they will land in the NCAA bracket on Monday afternoon in an online Selection Show hosted on D3hoops.com. The show goes live at 12:30 p.m.
"It's really exciting," Nokes said. "We're going to celebrate this for a couple days, and then we're going to come back and prepare. We'll see if we make a run in the NCAA Tournament, as well."
Hoppa said winning the USA South Championship was a goal they had set earlier, but now, after reaching that goal, the Scots are setting their sights higher.
"I don't think our job is done yet," Hoppa said. "We got our first goal of winning, finally, a Conference Championship – putting the banner up and getting a ring, but I'm looking at a National Championship. I look at the bigger goals. Imagine if we could pull that off. Just imagine what the excitement would be and the celebration would be here if we did that. There are bigger goals ahead."
However, the Scots will have to follow their model for the 2017-18 season, going game-by-game.
The NCAA bid is Maryville's first since 2012, and Lambert said this moment is special for his squad.
"They deserve this," Lambert said of the bid. "I thought they followed the game plan pretty well. Hopefully, this team can continue and make a little noise in the NCAA Tournament. The important thing is, we're dancing! I'm looking forward to it.
"This team's good enough to where, 'Watch out!' we can make some noise in this thing if we play like we did tonight."
Maryville (22-6) was led by Hoppa's performance, as a trio of Scots earned double-digit scoring. Emier Bowman had 18 points, seven rebounds and four steals, as Songster added 13 points on a 3-for-3 effort beyond the arc. Nokes had nine points and six rebounds in limited action, as J.R. Sanders had nine points and a trio of assists and steals. Malcolm Walker had eight points and five boards, while Chris Watson added five points and four rebounds. Kaleb Estes, Daquan Summers and Emanuelle Garcia had four points each, as Summers added five rebounds. Estes had four assists, as Danterrius Bray had three points.
The Scots shot 55.6 percent (35-of-63), while connecting on six 3-pointers. They went 20-of-26 at the charity stripe, as they outrebounded Covenant 36-29.
Covenant (18-10) shot 30-of-61 (49.2 percent) while bucketing 12 treys at a 38.7 percent clip. Haynes nearly had his third double-double of the tournament with 16 points and nine rebounds, as Will Crumly had 14 points off the bench. Dryden added 13 points and five assists, as Patjo Twagirayezu had 10 points and six boards. Bailey Spragg also added seven points, six assists, four rebounds and four steals.