While the Running Eagles aren’t the same team that won three NAIA national championships in the late 1990s, they are a group of overachieving players who appear to play their best late in the season.
That tenacity will be on display when unranked Life takes on fourth-ranked John Brown (Ark.) in the first round of the NAIA Division I men’s basketball national championship today at Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City.
Life is one of 32 teams that advanced to the national tournament. The event, which began with first round action on Wednesday, runs through Tuesday and all games will be played at the Auditorium.
The Running Eagles (19-12), who have won four straight and six of their last seven, tip off against the Golden Eagles (27-6) at 12:30 p.m. today with the winner advancing to face either Georgetown (Ky.) or St. Thomas (Texas) at 12:30 p.m. on Friday.
“This is really exciting,” Barrett said. “We weren’t having a typical year, but we started to improve during the second half of the season and we’ve been playing our best basketball down the stretch.
“Three weeks ago, I didn’t know if we’d be in this tournament for the fifth straight year, but here we are. We’ve won three conference championships and we’ve been in the national tournament all five times since the program’s been back.
“I’m really proud of that. We’re not where we are like we were in the 90s, but over these first five years back, we’re way ahead of schedule from the standpoint of getting the program off the ground. Our records aren’t as pretty, but we’re getting the job done.”
This season, Life’s getting it done offensively and defensively. The Running Eagles lead the nation in steals per game at 13.1 and they rank seventh in turnover margin at 4.6 per contest. Life is also 10th in scoring offense per game (83.2).
Bobby Smith leads the team in scoring average at 16.2 per outings. Starters Greg Thomas (16.1 ppg) and Latraius Mosley (11.7 ppg) are also double-figure scorers. Former Marietta standout Barrington Ferguson is one of the team’s starters, while former Pebblebrook star Chris Beasley has seen a lot of action off the bench.
“The guys have really stepped up over the last three weeks,” Barrett said. “They’ve been consistent and playing really well right now. It’s nine to 10 guys putting it all together and we’re going to need every last one of them.
“There’s a definite advantage to playing Wednesday if you can to avoid having to play three games in three days. We play (today), so if we keep winning, we don’t get a break until Sunday. It’s a gauntlet. It’s not like the NCAA, so it’s good to have a lot of bodies. We’re going to try and stay as long as we can.”
Life will be facing a Golden Eagles’ team that is No. 1 in the nation in 3-point field goal percentage (39.6) and third in 3-pointers made per game (10.2). They’re also seventh in field goal percentage defense (.387) with four players averaging roughly 10 points per contest.
“John Brown is the total opposite of us,” Barrett said. “They run a lot of halfcourt with backdoor plays and cuts to find the open man for the three. The tempo of the game will be critical. We have to go after the game and push it at them.
“Whoever can force the other team to run their tempo will win.”