From the first day of basketball practice last fall, until late in the regular season, interviews with returning members of the Sandhills Community College team frequently contained a reference to the goal of returning to Minnesota and winning it all.
Last year's squad lost the NJCAA Division III tournament opener to eventual champion Herkimer (NY) and went on to defeat the tournament's No. 1 seed Suffolk County (NY) for 5th place.
"I am working hard to get back to Minnesota," Sophomore Elijah Idlett, a Cary High School grad said back in September after receiving his inspiration from watching the national tournament as a red-shirt player.
Mike Apple was in his first season at Sandhills when the Flyers won their first national title in 2012.
"We started this season at a high level and when you do that sometimes it's hard to finish what you start," he said afterward. "In this kind of championship you are playing against teams that are all winners."
High-scoring Flyers Grind One Out in Tournament Opener
Ranked No. 1 in the nation for the previous 12 weeks, the No. 1 seeded Flyers came into the tournament held at Rochester Regional Sports Center leading the nation in scoring at 105.6 points per game. Their opponent in one of Thursday's quarter finals was eighth-seeded Herkimer, the No. 2 defensive team in the nation at 60.5 per game.
The Flyers proved they could also grind it out, turning the table on the team that ended their hopes a year ago with a 65-55 victory. It was announced at halftime of that game a decision had been made by tournament officials to shorten the tournament because of the Coronavirus Pandemic.
The remaining consolation games would be canceled and both the semi-final and championship contests would be played on Friday.
Reminder of AAU Days – Two Games in One Day
The Flyers defeated No. 4 Rochester Tech 84-76 on its home court in a semi-final contest that tipped-off at 11 a.m. Mohawk Valley CC of Utica NY advanced with a 93-87 victory over Eastfield, TX in a game that began at 1 p.m.
As the season wore on, Flyers players often expressed a confidence in their ability to wear opponents down late in games with the depth of the squad and transition-oriented style of play.
Heading into the championship game, it was not lost on the coaches and players that all five Mohawk starters had played 31 minutes or more against Eastfield while 27 minutes was the most by a Sandhills starter in its semi-final.
Sophomore guard Winston Bryan was asked afterward what he was thinking about as he prepared to play his second game in a period of five hours.
"It took me back to my AAU days in high school," the product of Dudley High School said. "It was cool for me playing two games.
"We're the deepest team in the country so I wasn't worried. I just did my pre-game routine, took a little nap and came in ready to play. The whole team followed suit."
"Coach Apple told us there is no team in the country that can play back-to-back games against us. You saw what happened."
No. 1 Meets No. 2
Sandhills (34-2) came into the championship game with a streak of 17 wins in a row. Mohawk Valley (29-3) had won its last 18 games.
The Flyers trailed the Hawks by five points early in the second half when Bryan drained his third trey. With 15:20 remaining, Idlett received a pass from Corry Addison for a basket that gave the Flyers their first lead since the 15th minute of the first half.
They trailed again, 76-71 with seven minutes remaining when a basket by Derreco Miller signaled the start of another strong finish. At the 4:05 mark, a three by Savion Staton evened things up at 83-83.
The Hawks regained the lead, but another three by Staton put the Flyers ahead for good at 88-86. A basket by Dent gave him 17 points in the half and a 90-86 lead. A steal by Staton and a pair of free throws by by Addison with 5.3 seconds remaining iced it.
The Flyers trailed late in all three of the games. Led by Staton with 12 points, and Tyrell Allmond with nine, the non-starters outscored their Mohawk Counterparts 37-14 in the finale.
"We fought the good fight and came out on top," Apple said. "It's a testament to how hard our guys worked this year. To a man they really appreciate what they have to show for it. It was a fitting performance for a dream season.
"I can't say enough about Eli and the heart and soul he had for this team, and about Sayuan Dent and how good he was all year. His 27 points in this last game was incredible. And the growth of the new guys as freshmen – Derreco coming in and doing the things he's done and Savion playing great basketball the last two games."
Dent made 13 of his 16 shots from the field in the game and was named tournament MVP. Staton and Miller also made the all-tournament squad. Apple was named Coach of the Tournament.
Mohawk Valley – Dean 4 2-4 10, Fishburne 10 0-0 23, Codrington 4 3-7 11, Steed 4 0-2 10, Cuevas-Mart 7 5-7 21, Dukes 1 0-0 2, Merrit 1 2-2 5, Miller 2 2-2 7 Totals 33 14-24 89. Sandhills – Idlett 3 4-5 12, Dent 13 0-0 27, Bryan 3 0-0 9, Addison 1 0-1 2, Miller 3 0-0 6, Ratliffe 0 0-0 0, Staton 4 0-0 12, Allmond 4 1-3 9, Yow 2 0-0 6, Williams 0 0-0 0, Richardson 3 0-0 6, Davis 2 0-0 4, Medins 0 0-0 0 Totals 38 5-9 93. Three-point goals: MV 9 (Fishburne 3, Steed 2, Cuevas-Mart 2, Merrit, Miller); SCC 12 (Staton 4, Bryan 3, Yow 2, Idlett 2, Dent).
by Charlie Bergmann
photo by Donna Ford