FRISCO, TX -- When Lincoln Memorial takes on Augustana 2 p.m. CT Saturday in the NCAA Division II Men’s Basketball Championship game at Dr. Pepper Arena, it will be easy to look at the star players on each to explain why these teams are in this position.
Lincoln Memorial senior Gerel Simmons hit one clutch shot after another in the waning minutes of the Railsplitters’ enthralling 103-102 semifinal victory over West Liberty on Thursday.
For Augustana, senior Casey Schilling has been steady, scoring 17 points in each of the Vikings’ two wins in the Elite Eight and senior Daniel Jansen showed grit in the semifinals, scoring 13 points in the first half despite an injured foot.
All three players have shown in the 2016 Elite Eight why their names appear on numerous All-American teams.
Despite their star power, a key reason why the two teams are in position to win a national championship is because reserves have stepped up in important moments in the quarterfinals and semifinals.
In the first game of the Elite Eight, No. 1 seed Lincoln Memorial faced an 11-point deficit to Barry in the first half and starting forward Emanuel Terry was on the bench in foul trouble.
Terry showed his importance to the team by eventually going nine for 10 from the field and finishing with 20 points.
But in his absence in the first half, senior forward Curtis McMillion stepped in and made all five of his shots. Several of his put backs helped to engineer a late run in the first half that allowed Lincoln Memorial to take a four-point lead into halftime.
“When we got our championship T-shirts from conference, we put on it strength in numbers,” Lincoln Memorial coach Josh Schertz said. “In our first meeting in August, we said our greatest strength is our numbers. If we didn’t handle our depth the right way, our greatest detriment would be our depth because guys would be mad about playing time or what somebody else is doing.
“Curtis is a guy who is a fifth year senior, who started most of the early season. Emanuel was kind of injured most of the first semester and Curtis was tremendous.”
But when Terry was ready to return from the injury, McMillion lost his starting spot.
“We had a meeting in January and I sat Curtis down and said if we are going to be as good as we can be and compete at a national level, Emanuel has to start and you have to come off the bench,” Schertz said.
McMillion, like the other upperclassmen, handle his new role well, not disrupting a team that has now won 24 straight games.
“Our bench has a fifth-year senior in Curtis McMillion, a fourth-year junior in Curtis Webb, a fourth-year senior in Tim Pierce and a fourth-year junior in Paul Woodson,” Schertz said. “We start two sophomores. It shows the character of the people.
“I tell them all the time I am incredibly lucky to be their coach. They are talented guys, but better people.”
In Lincoln Memorial’s semifinal victory, when every point was vital, Webb came off the bench and drilled three, three-pointers when starter Luquon Choice was on the bench in foul trouble.
One of Webb’s three-pointer put Lincoln Memorial up 77-72 with 10:13 left in the game and a minute later, he made another three-pointer, which kept the Railsplitters ahead 80-76.
“Webb came in and hit two big threes right away,” Simmons said. “We just utilize all the players we have, and it was good enough to get the job done.”
For Augustana, the play of junior forward Zach Huisken was even more dramatic. About 12 minutes before the quarterfinal game against Tarleton State, Augustana learned that Jansen was going to be unavailable because of a foot injury sustained in practice the day before.
Huisken was thrust into the starting lineup literally at the last minute. He responded by scoring 13 points and pulling down eight rebounds in an 86-79 comeback victory.
“He has been amazing,” Jansen said. “Yesterday, he had such an amazing stat line for somebody who is thrown into the starting lineup. For him to step into a moment like this these past two games has been very impressive.”
In the semifinals, Huisken scored six points, grabbed eight rebounds and provided important minutes in the second half to allow Jansen to nurse his injured foot in order to be ready for the championship game.
“I think our whole goal this whole season was never about me, never about the coaches or about the seniors,” Jansen said. “It is about us 14 guys, five coaches and training staff. We are tightly knit guys. We have a mission to try to do something special.
“If it is your time to shine, we got your back 100 percent. We were very supportive of Zach. I knew he could play.”
It is that trust in all teammates that both teams have displayed during the season and in Elite Eight that has them playing in the biggest game of their college careers.