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Joyful Wildcats win National Championship

JOYFUL: Indiana Wesleyan’s men’s basketball teams hoists the national championship trophy after defeating Crossroads League-rival Saint Francis 84-71 Tuesday night in Sioux Falls, S.D.

BY SCOTT HUNT - shunt@chronicle-tribune.com

The Indiana Wesleyan men’s basketball team approached the postseason with a theme for how it wanted to play. Xs and Os aside, the Wildcats wanted to play with joy in all situations, good or bad.

And the Wildcats found that joy at one of the most critical moments of the NAIA Division II national championship game Tuesday night in the Sanford Pentagon, Sioux Falls, S.D. against Crossroads League rival Saint Francis.

IWU built a 40-29 lead by halftime and extended it to 46-29 less than two minutes into the second half only to see the Cougars come roaring back and close within one at 51-50 with just under 11 minutes to play.

Though the Wildcats never gave up the lead, the margin remained between one and four points for the next four minutes. During the final media timeout the Wildcats found what they needed to finish off the Cougars for the fourth time this season and win the school’s third national title in five years with an 84-71 win.

Indiana Wesleyan coach Greg Tonagel said the joy concept came up about three weeks ago as he and his staff were praying about what the Wildcats needed to make the next step, into the ramped up intensity of postseason basketball.

Joy was what kept coming up.

“At first I was like joy?” Tonagel by phone during the ‘Cats postgame celebration. “I’m a basketball coach. I’m going to go in there and tell them they’ve got to be tough and tell them they’ve got to work hard. But the more we prayed that’s what the word was so we just explored it as a team.”

Tonagel said that exploration included spending five minutes a day in scriptures, five minutes to pray and five minutes just talking to a teammate.

“So for about 20 days we did that and we grew and grew and grew,” he said. “It culminated when Saint Francis cut that lead to one. We’re in the huddle and the guys are looking at me and I said, ‘Fellas, we’re just going to have some joy. And it was like a big weight dropped off their back. They were kind of surprised, but this is the way we’ve been growing. This was purposely set up for us so let’s go do it.

“When you walk out of that huddle and have that fearless mindset you can play free and play up to your potential,” he added. “That’s what I saw this team do.”

Saint Francis twice pulled with in one, the final time being at 62-61 with 5:29 remaining, but IWU scored the next five points and outscored Saint Francis 22-10 over the final minutes to pull away for the win. 

“We built that lead with some big shots. We knew they are a tough team and a well-coached team and I knew they were gong to make a run — I didn’t know it was going to be that big of a run,” Tonagel said. “When you play five games in six days - we shot a few too many threes and got a little sloppy — and our shots were short. We had to settle back in and finish the game in the paint. Once we settled in and did that we were able to take back control of the game.”

Tonagel shared that this team has been his most enjoyable to coach in the 13 years he’s now been at Indiana Wesleyan.

The Wildcats took steps to improve on every weakness they had on the court this season, and the growth of the team was even more extensive off the floor.

Both facets came together in the Wildcats win on Tuesday.

Freshman Kyle Mangas led five ‘Cats in double figure scoring with 22 points, and added the Most Outstanding Player of the tournament to his already impressive rookie season. Evan Maxwell finished with 20 points and eight rebounds, while senior Jacob Johnson added 14, freshman Grant Smith had 13 and Canaan Coffey scored 12.   

“I’m very proud of them and proud of our seniors for the leadership they’ve shown the entire year,” Tonagel said. “This morning we just reflected on how we’ve grown as men and it was incredible. No year in my 13 have I seen a team grow so much and to see it culminate in something like this, its far more than about a national championship. It’s about that growth that will last forever.

“I could pick literally 50 areas of growth and this team bought into everything.”

Senior Ben Carlson earned the Hustle Award for the tourney.