Mar 15, 2024

Coyotes eager to play NAIA Tournament in Mabee Arena

Posted Mar 15, 2024 3:55 PM

One of the Kansas Wesleyan Coyotes' goals before the season began was to qualify for the NAIA Men's National Championship for a third consecutive season.

Mission accomplished and there's a bonus they did not anticipate - playing their first-round game and perhaps a second-round game in the cozy, comfortable confines of Mabee Arena, their home gymnasium.

KWU plays Louisiana State-Shreveport at 8 p.m. Friday. Concordia (Neb.) takes on Indiana University Northwest in the first game at 6 p.m. Winners advance to the second round at 6 p.m. Saturday, a trip to the Final Site that starts March 21 in Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City, Missouri at stake.

The Coyotes (23-8) are the fifth seed in the Duer Quadrant and LSU-Shreveport (22-8) the 12th seed. Concordia (23-7) is the fourth seed and IU Northwest (21-10) the 13th.

KWU is the first Kansas Conference team to play a first-round game on its home floor since the NAIA expanded the field to 64 teams.

"I think it's pretty great to be in front of all our fans, hopefully it's a packed house," senior point guard Jun Murdock said. "Our crowd has been doing a good job of coming out to all the games so I think it's going to be great."

His coach Anthony Monson agrees.

"Some comfort and understanding 'hey, we've played in this gym, won a lot of games in this gym,'" he said. "It's fun to be able to have a national tournament at your home site.

"This school has been to five national tournaments and this group's done three of them. It's pretty exciting for the school, for the program and for the city of Salina have the chance to actually host one of these."

While playing in Mabee Arena is great the Coyotes view it as an avenue in their quest to get beyond the second round. They've won first-round games each of the last two years only to fall short in the second round - last year they defeated Indiana Kokomo before falling to Morningside.

"We're comfortable in here, we practice in here every day, but I think it's more than just playing at home," Murdock said. "We're trying to take it to another level and we're trying to get to that next round."

"Our goal from the beginning of the year was to get the Final Site and have a chance to play for a national title and nothing's changed since then," Monson said.

KWU qualified for the national championship by finishing second in the KCAC Tournament behind No. 4-ranked Oklahoma Wesleyan and tied No. 9 Southwestern for second in the regular season standings.

The Coyotes are 12-3 in Mabee Arena this season, but their first NAIA hurdle is a tall one. LSU-Shreveport plays in the rugged Red River Conference and lost to a talented LSU-Alexandria team in the conference tournament semifinals.

"Very long, very athletic," Monson said. "They play a lot of zone with their length, mix in their man-to-man with it. They like to get up and down the court and play fast. Lot of really good players - 6-8, 6-9 and 6-11 kids. We're going to have our work cut out for us."

Four Pilots' starters score in double figures led by senior guard Calvin Carpenter who averages 12.8 points. Junior point guard Melvion Flanagan is next at 11.7 and is no stranger to Kansas. He played for Wichita State last season and averaged 4.9 points in 21 games that included three starts. The Pilots score just over 84 points per game.

Coach Kyle Blankenship will be busy Friday. He also coaches the LSU-Shreveport women's team that plays Tabor earlier in the day in Mabee Arena.

"We're going to have to do our jobs, boxing out, just playing disciplined basketball," Murdock said. "Everybody's going to give their best shot to us, we know that."

Murdock, an All-American and the starting point guard the last three years, averages a team-best 18 points along with five assists and four rebounds. Alex Littlejohn is next at 17.3 points with 11.5 rebounds (fifth in the NAIA) and 3.4 assists. Izaiah Hale averages 10.2 points and Thurbil Bile 9.6 and five rebounds.

Monson wants to win but also wants his team to enjoy the experience.

"I had a coach once tell me 'don't ever take winning for granted,'" he said. "When you get to these moments you've got to really enjoy them regardless of the situation that you're in. There's 230-plus teams in the NAIA and only 64 get to play in this thing.

"This team's done it all year long. They've been doubted, questions about this, questions about that and yet they still find themselves where they're at."

"It's the national tournament," Murdock said. "No one wants to go home."

Tonight's game can be heard on KINA (910 AM/107.5 FM) with pregame coverage beginning at 7:30.