KANSAS CITY – “Mama! We got some more hardware!”
Najeal Young’s cry could be heard throughout the historic confines of Municipal Auditorium. Just as the fans had screamed for him as he and the Texas Wesleyan Rams rolled to an 86-76 championship win over Life (Georgia), Young returned the favor.
It’s the second men’s basketball national championship Texas Wesleyan has won. The first came in 2006.
Rams guard Dion Rogers, who finished with 28 points and eight rebounds, was named MVP.
“That’s my roommate,” Young bellowed.
Rogers, Naiel Smith, Ryan Harris and Co. largely shutdown the deadly 3-point attack from the Running Eagles, a perimeter game that complemented the stellar play of Dalarian Williams, who was named the NAIA Player of the Year.
The Rams negated all of it -- less than 24 hours after needing overtime to dispel No. 1 seed William Penn.
“Recovery,” the 6-foot Rogers explained of the Rams’ quick turnaround. “Last night after the game we went back the hotel and filled an ice bath up in the bathroom. We tried to recover as quick as we can. We had protein drinks made for us. We just tried to recover and get our energy back for tonight’s game.”
Rogers, hugging the MVP trophy before passing it off to family, lost his words as he tried to explain being named the best player in the game.
“A lot ... It means a lot,” Rogers said. “I can’t even explain it right now. I don’t even know how to feel. I’m speechless.”
It was only fitting. A reserved demeanor defined Rogers for most of the season.
“Dion Rogers is speechless, like, literally,” Smith said. “He doesn’t talk. He’s just a silent assassin. I love that man, too, man. He told me he got me and I believed in him, just like I believed in Ryan, Jeremy, all those guys. I believed in them.”
Smith transferred to Texas Wesleyan this season from Ball State, where he started 18 games for the Cardinals. At the start of the season, he said coach Brennen Shingleton asked him to buy into a vision.
“Coach brought me in and he had a great idea and I believed in him,” Smith said. “I really believed in him. He told me, ‘You’re not going to fail, Naiel.’ Five seconds ago he just hugged me and told me, 'What did I tell you; you’re not going to fail.' I Love that man. I really love that man.”
Life had a knack for close games entering the championship, having last lost on Jan. 28. The Running Eagles advanced with two-point wins in the semifinals, quarterfinals and round two. Texas Wesleyan advanced with a one-point overtime victory over William Penn.
Running Eagles forward Dalarian Williams, as had been his responsibility most of the tournament, defended the top scorer, the Rams’ Dion Rogers, who entered the tournament average 19.5 points per game.
It didn’t matter.
Zach Landis got Life going early with a pair of 3-pointers, but Rogers powered the Rams out in front early, scoring five points in the game’s opening five minutes. Rogers kept finding ways into the lane, back-dooring Williams, and then dicing into the lane on a delayed fast break to score again.
Texas Wesleyan took a 35-23 lead into halftime, largely neutralizing all of the Running Eagles' perimeter threats.
The Running Eagles found slight success from beyond the arc, but the Rams rendered their perimeter game largely ineffective. Rogers and Co. gave the Rams big buckets and never let the Running Eagles make a run of their own.
While the game stalled out with awkward pauses and slight delays, nothing threw the Rams in a funk.
Harris put up 21 points and seven rebounds while Smith added 17 points, six assists and four rebounds. Young finished with 11 points and 10 rebounds. All three made the All-Tournament team.
“Guys like Najeal, Tre (Jeffrey), winners ... winners ... big-time winners,” Smith said emphatically of his fellow seniors. “We all bought into something and we believed in it, man. We're brothers. On and off the court. Regardless of where we’re at, we can help each other out without a doubt. I love those guys.”
The Rams won their only national championship in 2006, defeating No. 7 Oklahoma City 69-65 in the title game. In that same season, when the Saints were ranked No. 4 at the tournament, Texas Wesleyan defeated Carroll in the quarterfinals.
Shingleton was named the coach of the year.
“We’ll all so different, but we’re all here for the same thing and that’s to win,” Rogers said of the Rams. “We all played for each other and there’s no selfish person on the team. All we wanted to do win.”
Vanquishing Cumberlands, The Master’s, Dalton State, William Penn and Life, that’s all the Rams did do.
Five wins. Six days.
Texas Wesleyan is the 2017 NAIA champion.