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David Boyce | | March 20, 2016

DII basketball: Seniors help Augustana reach Elite Eight for the first time

  Augustana advanced to its first Elite Eight after an 80-78 win over Northwest Missouri State.

Nearly 30 minutes after Augustana men’s basketball team cut down the nets for winning the Central Region and a spot in the NCAA Division II Elite Eight, senior center Daniel Jansen was still in uniform at the Sanford Pentagon talking with fans.

A couple of young fans came up to him and asked for his autograph, which Jansen happily signed.

Since Jansen and fellow seniors Casey Schilling and Alex Richter arrived at Augustana as freshmen, they knew they were members of a basketball program capable of reaching the Elite Eight. To finally get there for the first time in school history made March 15 a special evening.

“It is an amazing feeling, especially for our program,” Jansen said. “I am happy for coach Tom Billeter and the rest of the coaching staff.”

Schilling added the goal of making it out of regional has been a dream theirs for four years.

“We have talked about it and talked about it and talked about it, but we never accomplished it until now,” Schilling said. “It was one of those things we knew we had the potential the last couple of years. Last year we fell a little bit short. This year we were motivated the whole way through. We weren’t going to let it happen again.”

A year ago, Augustana played host to the Central Region and lost a heartbreaker to Northwest Missouri State in the semifinals.

One year later, the two teams met again at the Sanford Pentagon. This time it was in the championship and it came down to the final few seconds. Two free throws by sophomore Jordan Spencer with 4.6 seconds left lifted Augustana to an 80-78 victory.

“They are a great team,” Schilling said of Northwest. “Obviously, we didn’t want to lose to them like we did last year. That added a ton of fuel to the fire. We were not letting this happen again. They have battled us and every game is as close as it can be.

“When that buzzer rang and we were victorious, it was a great feeling. All the hard work we put through the whole four years really paid off. It is one of those things you have to thank God he put the pieces together. We got to keep using his talents to the best of our abilities.”

As Jansen puts it, the Vikings, 31-2, want to do something special when they arrive at Dr. Pepper Arena in Frisco, Texas and play their quarterfinal game at 6 p.m. CT Wednesday against Tarleton State, 24-8.

MORE: Full interactive bracket | Printable bracket

This season in NCAA Division II, the brackets were reseeded once the teams made it to the Elite Eight. Augustana is the No. 2 seed. The top seed is Lincoln Memorial.

Given what he has experienced playing Division II basketball for Augustana the last four years, Jansen knows this experience at the Elite Eight will be special.

For the Central Region championship game, 3,221 filled the Sanford Pentagon and fans for both teams were emotionally involved in the game from the opening tipoff until the final buzzer.

“There are so many people who don’t understand how good Division II basketball is,” Jansen said. “Everyone wants to play Division I. As a kid, I wanted to play Division I. Things didn’t work out and I ended up here. This is good basketball, a good atmosphere. I know smaller Division I schools couldn’t fill up the arena like we did.”

The excitement should only grow this week when Division II crowns a new men’s basketball champion.

The semifinals are Thursday evening and the championship is 3 p.m. ET on Saturday.

Two years after winning 7 games, Florida Southern women’s basketball team in Elite Eight

During preseason workouts, Florida Southern second-year women’s basketball coach Betsy Harris figured some of her player were mad at her. The workouts were designed to build mental toughness.

Harris knew the potential of the Moccasins was greater than the 7-20 team she inherited. Progress was made in Harris’ first year. Florida Southern finished 13-14.

Despite the six-game improvement in the 2014-15 season, it is doubtful many thought Florida Southern would be one of the teams in the Elite Eight when this season started.

But hard work and togetherness have put the Moccasins in position to win a national championship.

The journey continues 1 p.m ET on Tuesday when Florida Southern, 27-5, takes on undefeated Lubbock Christian, 32-0, in the quarterfinals at the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.  

“We are not going to be one of those teams that is happy to be there,” Harris said. “We are going to try to win this thing. When we went to regional, we weren’t satisfied. You are here for a reason. Let’s use this opportunity to do as best we can and go as far as we can.

“We know we have a hard task against Lubbock Christian. We also know we are there for a reason and not to show up and enjoy it and go home. We want to try to win it.”

Facing a difficult chore head on is what Harris has instilled in the Moccasins.

“I am really proud and happy for what they have accomplished so far because they put in a lot of work this past year to get us this far,” Harris said.

“It all started in preseason. We had a pretty tough preseason. We had a lot of workouts because I was trying to make them mentally tough because before I got here, they didn’t have that toughness. That is what was hurting them. They didn’t have that mental toughness to get through and the conditioning they needed.”

Harris also had the players do community service projects together.

“They get to see it doesn’t take one person to do it; we do it together,” Harris said.

The mindset of winning one game and losing one game also had to change. A year ago, Harris saw that some players were content to be average. Average, though, doesn’t get a team in the regional tournament and nowhere close to the Elite Eight.

“I expressed to them I was not happy with average because I don’t want to be average,” Harris said. “I told them anybody can be average. It takes a special team to be great and that’s what I wanted with this team.

“We won seven or eight games in a row this season and it was the first time it happened with this group and they started enjoying winning. They weren’t content with winning, losing, winning, losing. Where before, they were content with it.”

Harris is proud of the way the players she inherited like senior Mariah Harris have bought in and are now reaping the reward of hard work.

Harris wants the Elite Eight experience to be one her players will remember years from now.

“I played in the Final Four when I was at Alabama so I know that feeling,” Harris said. “I want to be able to give these kids the confidence that they can do something like that, and hopefully win a national championship. I want them to look back 20 years from now, like I do and have no regrets and say, ‘I am so glad coach did this and coach did that and glad I stuck it out.’

“What they accomplished this year, especially the seniors, is only going to help them later in life because they have learned to push through things when it was tough instead of quitting.”