MANHATTAN, Kan. — The Little Apple was supposed to be big enough for Division II Alabama-Huntsville, but the Chargers arrived at Bramlage Coliseum with bigger things in mind.
Thanks to a 78-75 upset victory against North Texas in the opening round of the NIT Season Tip-Off, Alabama-Huntsville found itself playing Kansas State on Tuesday night for a trip to New York and the NIT semifinals on Nov. 21.
“We beat a team that was picked to win the Sun Belt and I don’t think that was a fluke,” UAH coach Lennie Acuff said. “I thought that was our team out there.”
The Chargers’ inclusion in the 16-team NIT field marked the first time a DII program was invited to play in the tradition-rich tournament. Alabama-Huntsville entered NIT action ranked No. 3 in the NABC Division II Coaches Poll.
“The stars kind of aligned for us to get into [the NIT], and we really appreciate the trust that they put in us,” Acuff said. “I think the success we’ve had and our school’s academic reputation helped as well. We have four players who are going to be engineers and three pre-med guys on this team. I think our program stands for the right things.”
Alabama-Huntsville made its mark on the tournament by limiting North Texas preseason All-American forward Tony Mitchell to 10 points Monday night. Eight different Chargers scored in that game, three in double figures, and UAH outscored North Texas 26-8 off the bench.
The undersized Chargers also outrebounded the Mean Green 45-40 and added 21 second-chance points, but shocking a DI foe for the second time in as many nights proved too difficult.
“We were just dead,” Acuff said. “[Monday] night we got home at 2 a.m., and we just had no legs [Tuesday]. We spoke before the game, and I could just tell we did not have energy.”
Kansas State scored 41 of the game’s first 50 points and cruised to an 87-26 victory in the Midwest regional championship.
Alabama-Huntsville missed its first 10 3-point attempts after shooting 7-14 behind the arc in the first half against North Texas.
“Their guys are just faster and stronger at every position, and we had less than 24 hours to rest,” Acuff said. “I’m not using that as an excuse, but that is just the reality. K-State was better in all facets of the game. They out-shot us, out-defended us, and out-hustled us.
“It doesn’t help that we were 3-33 for 3-point shots. If shots don’t fall, everything else is hard.”
Guard Jaime Smith, who led DII in 3-point field goal percentage last season (48.6 percent) and owns the program’s record for 3-pointers in a career (226), was held to four points and missed all nine of his 3-point attempts.
“It just shows you that you hope everything you do is not based on basketball, because you can go from one extreme to the other really quick,” Acuff said. “Less than 24 hours ago we were on top of the world and now we’re sitting with a loss like that.”
Despite their lopsided loss to Kansas State being broadcast to a national audience, UAH was appreciative of the unique opportunity to represent DII in the NIT tournament.
“We told our guys that there are 311 Division II schools and 310 of them would have traded places with us,” Acuff said.
“Division II basketball oftentimes doesn’t get the credit it deserves. There are a lot of good teams in Division II, and there are a lot of teams out there as good as we are. But you never really get a chance to do this in Division II, so we’re really appreciative of the opportunity.”
The Chargers will continue their DI tour in the NIT consolation round Nov. 19 and 20 at a site yet to be determined.