Entering his seventh season at the helm of the Southwestern men’s basketball team, Matt O’Brien was on the brink of scrapping the foundation in which he had operated under for the first six years.
Southwestern had strung together five consecutive winning seasons, but it had never won big. The KCAC title had always escaped the Moundbuilders and if O’Brien wasn’t winning championships, then he wasn’t satisfied.
But a preseason conversation with assistant coach Tim Miser convinced O’Brien to keep his playbook and scrap plans for a complete overhaul. The decision has worked out: Southwestern will play top-seeded Tabor for the KCAC championship at Hartman Arena on Monday evening.
Since Tabor (29-3) already secured KCAC’s automatic bid to the NAIA tournament for winning the regular season, Southwestern (26-6) has clinched a berth to the tournament for the first time since 2006.
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"It’s funny because whenever a young player will call and ask for advice, I will tell them to work hard and good things will happen," O’Brien said. "I always believed in that, so I think that’s what (Miser) reminded me of. So when it happens like it has this season, that belief becomes that much more powerful."
When he was wavering before the season, O’Brien was tempted to ditch the team’s motion offense it had used the past five seasons for a ball-screen heavy offense.
"A motion offense is great because it allows your players to go out there and make plays," O’Brien said. "But the thing about it is that in a motion offense, the coach doesn’t really have much control on what gets run. There’s not as much structure."
Southwestern has won 12 of its last 14 games and is led by the highest-scoring duo in the conference in Cameron Clark (23.3 points) and Chris Waller (20.4 points). The Moundbuilders are averaging 87.1 points, tops in the conference, and rank among the top-10 in the nation in field-goal percentage at 49.4 percent.
But Tabor just completed a 20-0 regular-season in the KCAC and is back in the tournament finals for the second straight year, led by KCAC Player of the Year Lance Carter.
Each team won overtime semifinal match-ups, as Southwestern rallied to erase a 12-point deficit with three minutes left to defeat Saint Mary’s in overtime and Tabor survived an upset bid by Friends to win 88-79 in overtime.
To win a championship, like O’Brien so badly desires, it will take Southwestern’s best game to knock off the undefeated, defending champions.
"I think our team deserves to be at Hartman Arena and they deserve a shot at the title," O’Brien said. "These guys work extremely hard outside of practice. It’s probably the hardest-working team outside of practice I’ve ever had. They just kept working hard and now good things are happening."
KCAC women’s final — Top-seed Tabor is back in the women’s tournament championship game, as the Bluejays will face an Ottawa team that has made an improbable run to a title game it hasn’t won since 2011.
Ottawa (12-17) finished in sixth place in the regular season, but upset No. 3 Oklahoma Wesleyan and then No. 2 Friends to reach the tournament finals. It lost both regular-season games to Tabor, but it was a closer game in a 67-63 Tabor win on Jan. 16.
Tabor (25-7) does not have one player that averages double-digit scoring and has found success in a smothering defense that allows just 58.9 points per game, five points better than next-best in conference.