IUK men's basketball

IU Kokomo senior Akil McClain puts up a jumper at Cougar Gym. The IUK men’s basketball squad won its opening game in the NAIA Division II men’s basketball tournament last week before the rest of the tourney was called off in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The IU Kokomo men’s basketball team had a five-game winning streak in December and another in January.

When the Cougars ventured to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, last week to compete in the NAIA Division II national tournament, it would take a five-game winning streak to win the championship. The Cougars didn’t get to see if they could win five in a row, instead they have to settle for ending the season on a one-game winning streak.

The Cougars beat Wolverine-Hoosier Athletic Conference champ Madonna University 70-68 on March 11 in the opening round of the tourney to advance to the round of 16. The next day, the remainder of the tournament was canceled as the NAIA moved to close the tourney in response to the rapidly moving threat of the COVID-19 virus.

“I feel like there’s a silver lining for our team because we got to go out there, win our game against a highly ranked team, and finish our season on a high note,” IUK coach Eric Echelbarger said.

It was a whirlwind last couple weeks of the season for the Cougars. IUK won a share of the River States Conference’s West Division title, was runner-up in the league tourney, got the last at-large bid to the tournament, and proved its mettle as it knocked off a 4 seed in Madonna U. The 32-team tourney features 24 automatic qualifiers, a host school, and seven at-large bids based on national ranking. The Cougars were 22nd in the final poll and grabbed the final spot as a result.

Echelbarger called that win “huge, absolutely huge.” It was IUK’s second straight trip to the round of 16.

“To get in like we did then play a team that, literally we’re ranked 22nd in the country, they’re ranked 12th,” he said. “I feel like our guys ... had experience being out there so they weren’t new to the scene on the national level. We had a good game plan for them and our guys executed really well. Really our guys were locked in defensively. Guys just played within themselves, we got some good shots and we made some plays at the end to be able to win.”

As soon as the game ended, things started changing. After winning that game, Echelbarger was talking with associate coach Roosevelt Jones about how much was happening with the pandemic situation.

“[When] it kind of hit us that it was going to a different level was right after our game Wednesday at 5:45,” Echelbarger said. “We came out of the locker room and that’s when we had heard that [Utah Jazz player] Rudy Gobert had tested positive [for COVID-19] and the NBA had suspended their season. I told Roosevelt we might not play on Friday.”

The Cougars practiced the following morning, then as practice ended at noon, got the news that the tournament was off. IUK was slated to get a shot against overall No. 1 seed College of Idaho but forces far more urgent than basketball got in the way.

Echelbarger said watching teams and players depart showed how much playing in the national tournament meant.

“The immediate thing is there’s people walking out of that national tournament that day with tears,” he said. “They worked their whole season and in some cases their whole careers to get to play on the national stage. I think when you watch the news you realize it’s bigger than basketball. It’s the safety and health of our families and communities. I think our guys understand that.

“There is some silver lining in that we were able to play and win. For our team, that’s as good as it can be given the very difficult circumstances we’re in right now.”

After that, players went home. IU Kokomo’s classes will be held online starting March 30. Players won’t be practicing or working out together.

It’s a strange ending for the seniors who earned appreciation from Echelbarger.

“I would like to thank our seniors, Akil McClain and Bryce Hudson, for being valued members of our program over the past three seasons and playing a vital role in turning our program into a nationally recognized team,” he said.

A third senior, Antoin Clifton, was injured at the beginning of the season and Echelbarger said he’s returning for a fifth year of eligibility next fall.

McClain closed his career as a two-time first-team All-RSC player.

Echelbarger is in his second season at the helm of IUK. He guides a three-man staff with Jones and student assistant Perry Michael. They had a big workload in finding a path for a team that was run-and-gun last year, but had to get more defensive this season.

“I think this year was very, very challenging from a coaching perspective,” Echelbarger said. “This is my second year being a head coach and just having to deal with the moving pieces of our team with certain guys out [due to injuries]. I thought it was difficult for the coaches and for the players. I credit my guys for adapting to our reality this year and working hard the whole way through. I could not be more proud of my team for coming through the year the way we did.

“I think we maximized everything out of the season that we possibly could. I think it’s a big step forward for our basketball program. This is the second year in a row at being at a high national level.”

He said IUK was playing its best at the end of the season and he expects the Cougars to build on this season’s achievements. IUK finished 27-7 and posted the program’s highest win total. The Cougars are 53-13 over the last two seasons, including 33-1 at home. They’ll take that home dominance into a new venue next season.

“We’re super excited about next year and getting in a new gym will be big for our program. We’ll be on campus in a brand-new facility — a lot to look forward to,” Echelbarger said.

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