KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Park University met the initial goal but came up just short of what would’ve ended up as a major upset.
Back in the NAIA Division I Men’s Basketball National Championship for the first time in five seasons, the Pirates held close Wednesday, March 16 before late free throws allowed Mid-American Christian (Okla.) to escape with an 88-86 win at historic Municipal Auditorium. The first round loss brought an end to a turnaround season that saw Park increase its win total from five in 2014-15 to 20 this season behind American Midwest Conference co-player of the year Xavielle Brown.
Park received an at-large bid to the tournament after placing third in the AMC regular season with a 17-5 record and losing in the semifinals of the league tournament earlier in the month. Mid-America Christian went on to upset top-seeded Biola on the way to winning the national championship in overtime Tuesday night.
“That’s all you want to do, to try and finish at the top of your conference so you can get downtown to the national tournament,” said Park coach Jason Kline, who recently became the program’s all-time winningest coach in his 11th season. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime event. Not one person on this roster had been down here. We’d been absent a few years from it, but we feel blessed to be at the top of a very good conference and have a chance to play down here.”
In the end, Park senior center Derrick Williams’ desperation 3-pointer from the top of the key went off line, but the attempt also came after the buzzer.
A quintet of players reached double figures for the Pirates, who last won a game in the national tournament back in 2010. BJ Watson, a junior guard, finished with a team-high 21 points, while Brown, a junior forward, tallied a double-double with 13 points and 13 rebounds. He finished the season averaging 23.1 points and 7.9 rebounds per game.
Brown headlined four players on the All-MWC list this season. Williams made the second team and Watson the third while Mylin Jordan ended up on the honorable mention list.
A native of Fort Wayne, Ind., Brown led the conference in scoring, while ranking fourth in NAIA Division I. He helped Park post three winning streaks of four or more games to vault into the national NAIA rankings on the way to a 20-10 season that ended bittersweet.
“Our slogan was: ‘Journey to the Tourney,’” Brown said. “We made it happen. It’s unfortunate we couldn’t get the win. We can’t hang our heads because it’s what we wanted to get down here and represent our school. It’s amazing. It gives you that taste. It gives you that hunger. I’ll tell you this right now: we will be back.”
Park dropped to 5-6 all-time in the National Championship and 3-3 in the first round. The Pirates best finish came back in 1998 when they reached the Fab Four.
Park trailed by as many as eight in this year’s first round matchup before a 10-0 run gave the Pirates a lead midway through the second half. Their last lead came from the free throw line when Jordan, one of the two senior starters, made it 79-78 with 3 minutes, 8 seconds to play.
Mid-America Christian took the advantage back from there, although the game ended up tied at 79, 81, and 83 before Jordan missed the front-end of a double bonus to leave Park trailing 85-84 with 14 seconds to play. The Evangels went 3-for-4 the rest of the way from the line, and Park couldn’t close the gap.
Levi Mitchell, a sophomore guard, finished with 17 points against Mid-America Christian, while Jordan (19) and Williams (10) also reached double figures. Williams added 11 rebounds for a double-double.
“Everything in the last two or three minutes is magnified by everyone in the crowd,” Kline said. “There’s a lot of thing that happened during the game that we didn’t do well. They didn’t do some things well, but they did enough to outweigh them. The last few possessions, the last couple of minutes, the things we didn’t do well, it didn’t cost us the game. It didn’t help us, but it didn’t cost us.”
Park loses four seniors, just two starters, and should have plenty of pieces back to make a return trip to the tournament field.
“I think they should be hungry now,” Kline said. “Now they have a little taste of it. Once you get a little taste of it you’ll want to get back down here.”