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GPAC tournament title a reward for perseverance

By Jacob Knabel on Mar. 23, 2020 in Men's Basketball

There had been some tough moments over the past two years for the Concordia University men’s basketball program. Halfway through the 2018-19 GPAC schedule, the Bulldogs sat at 1-9 in league play and in the basement of the conference standings. The rapid turnaround involving many of the same faces made this season’s GPAC tournament title run all the more enjoyable.

From an outsider’s perspective, not a lot was expected of head coach Ben Limback’s squad, which was picked eighth in the GPAC preseason coaches’ poll. One thing Concordia had going for it was the presence of two of the league’s most experienced players in seniors Tanner Shuck and Brevin Sloup, along with the return of its entire starting lineup.

“I’m so proud of the team,” Limback said. “That was our message after the (national tournament) game (versus Ottawa). Last year we were at one point the last place team in the league right after Christmas. This team came together and refocused. From then on I feel like this team has been on a mission. There’s been a cohesiveness and a bond that continued to get stronger as the season went on. We lost some tough games even this season. I thought each time the guys learned from that. This team had so much fight.”

By every measure, this was the program’s best season since the 2004-05 squad advanced all the way to the NAIA Division II national championship game. The 2019-20 Bulldogs went 24-10 overall while racking up the program’s third highest win total of the GPAC era (2000-present). Along the way, Concordia ended several droughts by hosting two postseason games, winning the GPAC tournament title and qualifying for the national tournament. In early February, Sloup and company weathered a storm that saw them lose three-straight games.

That’s when the fun began. An 83-77 home win over Hastings on Feb. 12 initiated a seven-game win streak that catapulted the Bulldogs back onto the national stage. During that run, Sloup poured in 29 points in a senior day blowout of Mount Marty before he added 28 more in a memorable overtime win at Jamestown to close out the regular season. Then there was the most unforgettable game of them all – the 68-66 squeaker at the Corn Palace in the GPAC title game.

“When you go to the Corn Palace in that environment against a great team and face so much adversity, that’s a thrilling victory,” Limback said. “At Jamestown we were down 18 in a game we had to win in order to host a home playoff game. There are a lot of fun memories. It’s fun to think about how this team was formed two years ago and how it came together to make the national tournament. Truly blessed and truly an amazing run.”

With the way things turned out in the final national poll, Concordia would have likely ended up as one of the teams on the outside looking in had it lost to 11th-ranked Dakota Wesleyan for the third time this season. Down the stretch, Shuck played like a veteran determined to keep his career going. Shuck notched a team high 17 points and nailed two critical crunch time 3-point field goals to help quiet the crowd in Mitchell.

The program’s third GPAC tournament title was certainly the on-court highlight of the winter. The Bulldogs also dominated the Concordia Invitational Tournament behind MVP Shuck and ventured to Hawaii just before Christmas. Sophomores Carter Kent and Justin Wiersema showed why they are critical pieces in the present and future while senior Chuol Biel fought through injury to put together a nice finish to his career. Biel had a career high 19 points at the national tournament.

No team in school history let it fly from 3-point range like this one did. Its 382 made 3-point field goals shattered the previous program standard of 321 by the 1997-98 team that also reached the national tournament. Named an honorable mention All-American, Sloup led the Bulldogs with 91 3-point baskets while Kent (71) and Shuck (71) were also big contributors to the total. Shuck wound up netting 302 career 3-point field goals while playing in each of the program’s 126 games since the start of the 2016-17 season.

Sad Limback, “It was truly an amazing run and a wonderful group of young men to be around and coach. I’m so thankful that we had that opportunity. The senior class really laid the foundation for what we’re building. I think the taste for what we accomplished will keep our returners hungry and wanting more.”

Concordia had the distinction of playing in the final NAIA Division II basketball game ever (the NAIA will merge the two divisions beginning in 2020-21). It was certainly an entertaining contest to cap an event that got shut down by the coronavirus pandemic. The Bulldogs led fifth-ranked Ottawa almost the entire way before a Brave trey in the closing seconds reversed the outcome. It was a strong showing for a group that had never played at the national tournament, which was staged at the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, S.D.

“It was a well-played game and an exciting national tournament game,” Limback said. “We finish and come out of our locker room very emotional because it was the last game that we played. We could see the guys who were warming up after us just sitting in the bleachers and the devastation in their faces. It was a surreal feeling throughout that arena. It’s a day that none of us will ever forget, I’m sure.”

A couple of personal milestones were reached this winter with Shuck surpassing 1,500 career points and Sloup joining the 1,000-point club. In addition, not only did Limback become the second coach in school history to lead the program to the national tournament (joining Grant Schmidt), he also eclipsed 100 victories as head coach of the Bulldogs.

Concordia will likely enter next season with increased expectations from outsiders. Three starters will depart, but Kent and Wiersema are two fine players to build around. Other returners who saw extensive action in 2019-20 include the likes of Ryan Holt, Sam Scarpelli, Gage Smith, Klay Uher and AJ Watson.

Said Limback, “We have a lot of guys hungry to replace the seniors that are graduating. Then we have a freshman class that we’re really excited about that I know will help continue to push the level of this team up. There’s a lot of anticipation and excitement already for the guys coming back in regards to what we’re building towards.”