Winter storms and illness couldn’t slow down the Dalton State College men’s basketball team.
In the end, neither could any other team in the Southern States Athletic Conference when it came to the Roadrunners earning the league’s regular season championship.
Despite having practice schedules altered multiple times in recent days and one of its best players battling sickness, Dalton State was able to defeat Brewton-Parker 64-43 Saturday night at the trade center’s Mashburn Arena and secure the outright SSAC title. That brings with it an automatic bid into the 32-team field for the NAIA Division I National Championship, which starts March 18 in Kansas City, Mo.
Dalton State players and coaches celebrated after the game by cutting down the nets and posing for pictures with fans.
“This is an incredible moment for the team, the administration and the Dalton community,” said Dalton State coach Tony Ingle, who has led the program since it was relaunched prior to the 2013-14 season.
Dalton Junior College had a successful men’s basketball team from 1968 to 1978, and Ingle was among those who played for the Roadrunners during that time. It’s safe to say he has felt welcomed back.
“The whole town has supported us and given us a lot of help,” Ingle said, “and these players deserve it.”
Dalton State (26-3, 16-2 SSAC), ranked No. 6 in the NAIA Divsion I coaches poll, also celebrated senior night on Saturday, honoring seven players before the game. Preston Earle, Ladaris Green, Anthony Hilliard, Raheem Mosley, Dylan Smith and Sean Tate all played their final home game as Roadrunners. Isaiah Massey was also honored before the game, but the senior hasn’t played since suffering a knee injury in the Roadrunners’ preseason intrasquad scrimmage and has since left the team.
The Roadrunners have now matched their win total from a season ago, when they lost four games, but they weren’t eligible for the postseason last year because it was their first in NAIA competition. That made Saturday’s celebration all the more sweet for Ingle.
“That’s one of the things that’s not being mentioned with these players,” Ingle said. “They came here because they believed in what we were doing and believed in each other. Guys like Ladaris Green and Sean Tate came here knowing they wouldn’t have a chance to play for a title last year. I can’t think of any team in America more deserving of playing for a national title than these guys who made that sacrifice last season.”
Brewton-Parker (14-13, 7-11) was just 5-for-26 from the field in the first half. Dalton State took a while to heat up as well, but pulled away with a 28-6 run over the final 10 minutes of the first half. The Roadrunners led 35-15 at the break.
The Roadrunners emptied their bench in the second half. While the reserves had some sloppy moments — including 13 second-half turnovers — Smith and Jamaine Burrey hit a few 3-pointers and stretched the lead to 27 at one point. Brewton-Parker never got closer than 16 in the second half and shot just 1-for-19 from 3-point range for the game.
Once the final horn sounded, the party began. Ingle and the three senior captains — Tate, Green and Hilliard — all addressed the crowd and thanked them for their support. Green and Tate both received standing ovations and were clearly moved by the moment.
Each player also credited the fans and their support for the team’s enormous success so quickly since restarting the program.
“The fans are amazing,” Green said. “The love we feel from them every game is what keeps us going.”
Dalton State will now look to prepare for the SSAC conference tournament, which starts Wednesday at the Cramton Bowl Multiplex in Montgomery, Ala. The tournament’s No. 1 seed, Dalton State won’t play until Thursday, taking on the winner of a Wednesday matchup between the Blue Mountain College and Brewton-Parker.
The Roadrunners played this week with Green — one of the top rebounders in the NAIA — unavailable for extended periods as he recovers from illness. Tate knows that they will need the standout center at full strength to have success next week.
“We just have to get healthy right now,” Tate said. “We know we have a great team. But at this point in the season, it’s all about being at 100 percent and ready to play.”
Ingle won a national championship at the NCAA Division II level with Kennesaw State University in 2004, so he knows what it will take for this team to get to a high level in Kansas City. The NAIA Division I National Championship is a five-round event that takes place over the course of seven days.
“We have got to continue to get better production out of our bench,” Ingle said. “To win five games in a week is a difficult task and requires a total team effort. Our guys know what they have to do.”
Burrey has been a key bench player all season for the Roadrunners, and he led all scorers against Brewton-Parker with 14 points. He also had two steals.
Smith had 12 points and five rebounds, while Hilliard did all of his damage in the first half and finished with eight points, four rebounds and two steals. Junior forward Jordan Bowling played just 11 minutes, but scored seven points and collected three rebounds.