|Bailey leads Oklahoma City over Mountain State 75-72 for second straight title|
|Written by Admin|
|Tuesday, 25 March 2008 19:06|
Just down the court, Mountain State's players sat glumly on the bench, some covering their heads with towels, others staring blankly at the floor.
The NAIA may be an afterthought in a country caught up in March Madness, but the emotion - and some of the talent - is just the same as the NCAA tournament.
Ollie Bailey had 15 points and 16 rebounds, and Oklahoma City became the NAIA's first repeat champion in eight years with a 75-72 victory over Mountain State (W.Va.) Tuesday night.
``It doesn't matter on what level it is, a national title is a national title,'' said Bailey, chosen NAIA national player of the year after the game. ``It's a great accomplishment. It's a great feeling.''
Most of the players knew the feeling from the previous year, when Oklahoma City (31-7) beat Concordia University in the championship game. The Stars seemed a little jittery at the start of this one, missing easy shots, forcing up others to allow Mountain State to keep it close.
Oklahoma State took control with a late run in the first half, then stretched the lead early in the second, using a stout defense and just enough offense to win its record sixth NAIA title.
Willie Irick had 22 points and Kameron Gray, last year's NAIA tournament MVP, added 20 and took home another MVP award for Oklahoma City, which closed out the season with 15 straight wins.
The first NAIA team to reach three straight finals since Kentucky State did it in 1970-72, the Stars became its first repeat champions since Life (Ga.) University in 1999-2000.
``They're all special,'' said Oklahoma City coach Ray Draper, who also won two NCAA Division II titles at Kentucky Wesleyan. ``We had to come together as a team and we did, which is the reason we're here tonight.''
Mountain State (34-3) was effective in slowing the up-tempo Stars, turning the game into a half-court shoving match.
It didn't seem to bother Oklahoma City, which used consecutive 3-pointers by Gray and Richard Jackson to take a 29-21 halftime lead, then gradually built it from there, leading by as much as 16.
Mountain State, from Beckley, W. Va., at least made it interesting in the closing seconds, with Adron Marshall hitting a 3-pointer from the corner, then James Spencer stealing the inbounds pass to make it 75-72 with 1.7 seconds left.
It just wasn't enough. Oklahoma City closed it out by getting the ball into Irick's hands on the sideline before rushing the court.
Jason McGriff led the Cougars with 22 points and 11 rebounds, and Jarvis Jackson added 15 points.
``We made a late run and finally woke up,'' Spencer said. ``We came out dead in the first half for some reason. We woke up in the second half, but there wasn't enough time on the clock.''
While the NCAA tournament is one of the biggest sporting events of the year, the NAIA tournament operates in the shadows of March Madness, getting little attention and even less financial support.
Its players aren't quite as big and a smidgen less athletic than most Division I guys, and the crowds are much smaller; the championship game drew 3,876 compared to the 50,000 at some NCAA regional venues.
The teams aren't nearly as familiar, either, with names like Trevecca Nazarene and Azusa Pacific, coming from small towns like Plainview, Texas, and Chickasha, Okla.
In other ways, the NAIA isn't all that different than its big brother.
The depth of talent isn't the same as the larger schools, but there's still some there; all but a handful of the top teams have at least one NCAA Division I transfer.
McGriff is an athletic, 6-foot-9 forward with an array post moves and a good outside shot. He finished 7-of-13 in his final college game. Spencer, a transfer from Wyoming, scored 11 points after halftime, using his quickness to get open jumpers and drives to the basket.
Bailey, a former Big East all-rookie team member from Rutgers, had trouble finding his shot against the physical Cougars, going 4-for-12, but continued battling inside, using his strength to bull through for baskets and rebounds.
``These kids could play at a lot a, lot a places,'' Draper said.
There's some tradition, too.
Oklahoma City has been the NAIA's version of UCLA, reaching the national tournament 18 times, including the last 11, winning more national championships than any other school.
Mountain State has been sort of like a Kansas, winning consistently, picking up the occasional title. The Cougars have made the tournament 10 straight years and reached the title game three times in the past seven years, winning the 2004 championship over Georgetown (Ky.).
As for the NAIA tournament, it may actually be tougher than the NCAA. Dubbed ``College Basketball's Toughest Tournament,'' the championship road features five games in seven days, including the semifinals and finals on consecutive nights.
And the exhilaration, there's no doubt that's the same.
``Winning is the same to everyone,'' Bailey said. ``It feels good no matter where you're playing.''