CLEVELAND, Tenn. — The last chance may be the best chance for the Lee University men's basketball program to win an NAIA national championship.
Even with two losses in their last three games in a grueling final stretch of road games, the Flames are 29-3 and seeded third out of 32 teams in the Kansas City tournament that starts this morning -- the oldest championship event in college basketball.
"I don't know if I'd call it the best team we've had here, but it's up there, that's for sure," eighth-year Lee coach Tommy Brown said last weekend. "And it probably has the most potential to win it."
He's had talented, deep teams before, but this one has multiple players who are hard to defend because they can both spot-up shoot and drive -- Tennessee Tech transfers Will Barnes and Chase Dunn along with Duran Blue, Corey Billingsley and 6-foot-6 second-semester addition Jamorris Gaines -- and a monster inside presence in 6-10, 290-pound "Big" Steve Bennett.
Barnes has averaged 20.4 points while Gaines has provided 14.9, Dunn 11.7, Bennett 10.2, Blue 9.0 and Billingsley 8.8. Bennett has a 7.8 rebounds average and has blocked 37 shots.
Two guys from Chattanooga schools also are huge contributors, Brown emphasized, even though stats don't reflect their value. Patrick Shaughnessy is a 6-9 senior from Grace Academy, by way of Charleston Southern University, who has started 31 of 32 games and has blocked 30 shots and altered many more. And 6-6 sophomore Chad Lee from McCallie is the team's No. 2 rebounder at 6.6 per game.
"Patrick is a tremendous player for us," Brown said. "He's a very good defensive post player and one of the toughest kids I've ever coached. Chad Lee is tough as nails, too, and probably has the best basketball IQ of anybody I've ever coached."
The two have had double-figure scoring games, but with this team they can focus elsewhere.
"I take the most pride in rebounding," Lee said. "That's one place on the court where you can be as selfish as you want. The key is hustle -- anticipating where the ball is coming off and making sure the other team doesn't get it."
A similar mentality drives Shaughnessy in his specialty.
"Defense is mainly an effort thing," he said, ascribing to the theory that shooters can have off days but defense should be on all the time.
Lee pointed out that Shaughnessy also "stepped up and was huge offensively when Steve was hurt last year and this year."
In one sense the whole team seems like seniors at Kansas City, Lee said.
"It's the last chance for this school to win an NAIA championship in basketball," Shaughnessy echoed.
The Flames open this morning at 11:45 EDT against Voorhees (22-11), an athletic team from South Carolina, and Lee said the losses last week to Emmanuel and Faulkner -- by a total of five points -- mean nothing now. The latter was in the semifinals of the Southern States Athletic Conference tournament, and Coach Brown pointed out that "eight of the last 10" NAIA champions lost in their conference tournaments.
With a makeup trip thrown in, the Flames closed with four games away from home in seven days, and it would've been five in eight if they made the SSAC final. They're rested now, and today's early tipoff was the same time they started their SSAC quarterfinal and played well.
Lee's Lady Flames start even much earlier this morning in their NAIA tournament -- at 8:30 against LSU Shreveport in Frankfort, La. Lady Flames junior guard Hollie German from Polk County was announced Wednesday as a Women's Basketball Coaches Association NAIA All-American.
Like the rest of the Cleveland school, Brown is looking forward to the move to NCAA Division II, but he's going to miss the Kansas City trips.
"I love this tournament," he said. "That's the main thing I'm going to miss about the NAIA. You just feel the tradition when you're in Municipal Auditorium."
Maybe the last trip can last the longest.