At the USA South basketball tournament last week in Rocky Mount, N.C., Covenant College's Scots won the championship by avenging regular-season losses to Greensboro and LaGrange. They had lost twice to LaGrange, in fact, before beating the Panthers 101-92 in overtime in the tournament final.
The most remarkable of Covenant seasons can continue if the Scots extend that pattern one more game.
They play the first NCAA Division III tournament game in program history — and make its first national appearance of any kind since 1987 in the Christian college association — at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Emory University in Atlanta, where Covenant lost 76-63 on Dec. 30. Coach Kyle Taylor said that was the worst nonconference performance of the Scots' 18-9 season and his players were delighted to get another shot at the Eagles.
Emory is hosting a four-team pod that also includes LaGrange and Birmingham-Southern, which Covenant beat 96-81 on Dec. 12 in what Taylor said was his team's best nonconference showing. BSC was only 1-5 at the time but wound up dominating the Southern Athletic Association.
Friday's winners at Emory will meet Saturday, so a Scots win will get them another familiar foe either way.
It's all dessert at this point. Taylor said the preseason goal was to go 15-10 overall and 9-5 in USAS play, which should put the Scots in the top three of the 11-team league. They wound up 15-9 in the regular season — one game was canceled — and 10-4 in the league, which made them the runner-up and the No. 2 seed for the league tournament.
"We exceeded a lot of people's expectations, including our own," said the seventh-year coach. "Every team wants to win its conference and go to nationals, but you need to make your goals realistic."
Although the Scots had graduated some good production in 2015, Taylor felt there was good experience and leadership returning for this season, and at least three newcomers he felt could help right away: sophomore transfers Berto Dryden and Patjo Twagirayezu and freshman Bailey Spragg.
"Those three guys addressed our biggest weaknesses," Taylor said. "Bailey, for instance, even though he was a freshman, he played at The First Academy in Orlando and we saw him as a lockdown defender."
Senior guard TJ Cox is the only Scot who has started all 27 games, and he was their first-team All-USAS selection and the most valuable player of the tournament. Dryden and Twagirayezu have started 25 and 24 games, and Spragg has started 18.
Cox leads the team with 14.7 points a game, and only Dryden at 10.9 joins him with a double-digit average. Eleven of the 15 Scots who have played this season have been in at least 16 games, averaging nine minutes or more, and several players have taken turns with outstanding games.
Sharing the load is a big part of the brotherhood they proclaim.
"Every huddle, in practice and games, we say, 'One, two, three, family!'" said senior Chris Boyd, who has started 12 times this season and leads the team with 5.5 rebounds a game. "We have a deep connection on this team."
Boyd said he believed a league championship was possible all along.
"We definitely had big hopes, high expectations," he said. "We knew we had put the work in during the summer, and if we continued to dedicate ourselves we believed we could win the conference tournament.
"It was a little rough at first, but we stayed together and fought through it together."
The Scots' loss to Emory and first loss to LaGrange were part of a three-game skid that left them 5-6 in early January, but then they won five in a row and seven of eight. They're on another five-game win streak now.
Cox, Boyd, Daniel Garrett, Micah Turner and Daniel Garrett have been an "amazing" senior class, Dryden said.
Taylor recruited him out of Whitefield Academy in Mableton, Ga., but he chose to go to Thiel College in Pennsylvania, close to his New York home. But he decided to leave after one season and contacted Taylor, and he was greatly impressed with what he found at Covenant.
"Just how everyone interacted with each other, and how everybody enjoyed each other," Dryden said. "It really is like a family. And they welcomed me with open arms."
Dryden gave specific credit to Cox for keeping the team on an even keel.
"Even when my shot's not falling or something else is not going well for me," Cox said, "I try to find ways to help my team. I try to provide leadership.
"It's definitely been a long journey from how it was when I got here to now. A lot of the games we've won this year, we would've given up on in past years. One thing we've always done this year is we've fought."
An example in front of the team is the serious illness for assistant coach Peter Wilkerson. He has been away from the Scots for the last six weeks with virtual paralysis due to Guillain Barre syndrome, but the players as well as Taylor have stayed in touch and they brought their USAS trophy and net to him in the hospital on Sunday.
"He's still a big part of it," Boyd said. "Not only what he did play-making and setting up practice but in the recruiting practice. He got players here not just for their talent but for their ability to support each other. He's a big reason we're where we are."
Contact Ron Bush at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6291.