Lewis-Clark State men's hoops looks to conquer Kansas City in Round of 16 game against Evangel

Mar. 20—Before conference play began, the players on the Lewis-Clark State men's basketball team had to make a decision: completely buy in and commit or let the season be a waste. The 11th-seeded Warriors bought in and went on to surpass expectations.

This led to one of the most impressive seasons in coach Austin Johnson's six-year tenure: three individual conference awards, two first-team conference selections and being one of the final 16 clubs remaining for an NAIA national championship. For the team to continue its impressive season, it'll have to beat 15th-seeded Evangel (Mo.) at 5 p.m. Thursday at the Municipal Arena in Kansas City, Mo.

LCSC (24-8) beat sixth-seeded Hope International (Calif.) 93-77 on Friday in the opening round of the tournament. It followed that with a 85-77 victory over third-seeded Montana Tech to punch its ticket to the Round of 16. The Warriors' wins avenged two regular-season losses to the Royals and Orediggers — the latter of which finished eighth in the final top-25 coaches poll.

"It's really rare to play a team that's not in your conference and getting a chance to play them again," LCSC senior guard Sam Stockton said. "I feel like we've come a long way (since those earlier games). It was really nice to validate that and prove it. So that was tons of fun to go away at Montana Tech and win those big games."

Coming into this year, two-thirds of the Warriors' roster was new to the program — either they had transferred in or were in their first year of college.

Stockton, the only player who's spent four years with the program, is the lone member of the roster who's been to Kansas City for the final games of the NAIA tournament.

For the first month of the season, it looked like the team would struggle to be consistent. The Warriors finished their out-of-conference schedule 2-4.

Before conference play began and the injuries and departures started to pile up, LCSC's players made the decision to buy in and commit to the vision that Johnson and his staff presented.

Now, the same team that stumbled through its first month of the season is still in the hunt for a red banner.

"At this point, I feel like the most important thing is to take everything in and enjoy the moment with the guys," senior forward Jaedon Bradley said. "For the most part, I feel good. ... Any one of us can go off at any point. That's what makes us dangerous."

Evangel is a team that, like LCSC, has had to overcome its share of challenges to get where it's at.

The Valor beat No. 4 Oklahoma Wesleyan 80-74 on Feb. 24 in its regular season finale and dominated second-seeded Florida Memorial 91-76 in Friday's opening-round matchup. They followed that up with a 90-68 decision over 10th-seeded Baker (Kan.) Saturday to book its trip to the Municipal Arena.

The Valor are a total unselfish team-first offense that helped fuel one of the most efficient units in the NAIA over the last month.

"Evangel is a really good team," Johnson said. "Like us, they had to go win two games away from home to get to the final 16. You're not in the final 16 if you're not tough and you're not together. They're a really high-level motion offense team, the best we've seen all year. And they pose some defensive challenges for us with how they switch a lot of things."

Evangel has four players who average double figures. So does LCSC. The Valor have shot 49.2% from the floor this season. The Warriors have made 48.9% of their attempts. Evangel shoots the 3-pointer at a 33.7% clip. LCSC is marginally better in that regard (37.9%). Advantages differ from there.

The Valor have the advantage in assists, the Warriors are a better rebounding team. LCSC has recorded more blocked shots, but Evangel has more steals on the year.

There's not a clear upper hand for either team. The one advantage that might play a factor falls in favor of the Valor.

The Municipal Arena is a two-hour, 41-minute drive from the Evangel campus. This will probably result in a partisan crowd for the Valor.

But LCSC made it to Kansas City by playing in hostile environments — namely their win against Montana Tech, which happened at the Orediggers' home court.

"This group has responded the right way with its back against the wall every single time," Johnson said. "And the reality is we've been playing for our postseason lives since Dec. 1. ... We've been playing with that mindset of 'win or go home' since Dec. 1. And I think that's an advantage for us."

Evangel's top four scorers are all guards. The Valor use the speed of their guards to create mismatches on both sides of the court.

But, with its eight-man rotation, LCSC's players have gotten in the habit of playing multiple positions and have had to defend switch offenses and defenses several times this season.

There's no huge advantage on paper for either team, at least one that isn't offset by something else. It's going to come down to who wants it more.

And even if the Warriors win, they might have to play first-seeded Grace (Ind.) in the quarterfinals — a team that's only lost one game this season. But before L-C can think about Grace, it needs to stifle Evangel.

"This season has been a special one and you want to keep it going," Johnson said. "And it's special because of what the guys have done. What they've been through and how they responded to adversity. ... This group has been phenomenal. A lot of injuries and some really challenging things these guys had to go through and are continually going through to a certain extent. So to go to Kansas City and be one of the final 16 teams says a lot about their toughness and their character. They're a resilient team."

Kowatsch can be contacted at 208-848-2268, or on Twitter @Teren_Kowatsch.