Before the Dalton State College basketball team traveled to Montgomery, Alabama, for the Southern States Athletic Conference Tournament, head coach Alex Ireland gave his players T-shirts that read "One more."
Make that three more. Three more wins in three days for the Roadrunners and one more conference title.
Second-seeded Dalton State defeated No.4 seed Loyola University 79-70 Saturday night to win the SSAC Tournament championship and earn an automatic bid to the NAIA National Championship Tournament. Dalton State (30-3, 17-3 SSAC) will await the reveal of the 32-team NAIA tournament bracket on Wednesday to learn their seed and first-round opponent. The tournament is March 18-24 in Kansas City, Missouri.
"It's a great feeling," Ireland said. "It's a validation of all the hard work we've put in all year long."
The SSAC tournament championship is the first for the Roadrunners since the 2016-17 season and the first under Ireland, who is in his second season at the helm. Dalton State missed out in the NAIA tournament a season ago.
In the finals, the Roadrunners overcame early deficits to take the conference crown.
Dalton State fell behind 22-12 in the first half, tying it up by halftime at 37-37. The Roadrunners again fell behind in the second half, but took their first lead at the 4:40 mark when a C.J. Perry 3-pointer made it 64-63. The Roadrunners raced away from there, outscoring Loyola 15-7 the rest of the way.
"They came ready to play," Ireland said of Loyola. "They came out of the gates hot and jumped on us early. We kept chipping away, and we were finally able to overcome it."
Dalton State's Kevon Tucker led all scorers with 20 points and picked up six rebounds. Roadrunner Randy Bell, the SSAC Co-Player of the Year, scored 19, while Dauson Womack scored 11 and tallied 10 rebounds.
Tim Cameron and Myles Burns both scored 15 to lead Loyola.
Dalton State outscored Loyola 27-8 off the bench, with the majority coming from sixth-man Bell.
The Roadrunners were bounced from last year's SSAC tournament by Loyola, which went on to win the conference title game. Dalton State missed the NAIA tournament last season.
Dalton State joins conference foe Faulkner University in the NAIA tournament. Faulkner, which earned an automatic bid as the SSAC regular season champion, fell to Loyola in the semifinals on Friday.
"It's such a prestigious event," Ireland said of the NAIA tournament. "It's really special just to be a part of it."