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Mike Lopresti | | November 14, 2018

College basketball: Dramatic half-court buzzer beater welcomes team to DI

Andy Katz predicts the next Loyola Chicago

No, no. This couldn't have happened. The plot’s too rich.

Here were the California Baptist Lancers — the new kids on the block in Division I basketball — playing their first actual game in the classification against another DI opponent, at Oral Roberts. They’re down 69-67 after an Oral Roberts 3-pointer with five seconds left, and Milan Acquaah — one of the transfers who arrived to help with the move — was racing down the court. “Our mindset is always fearless,” he would say later. “I just wanted to get a shot up as quickly as possible, no matter where it was from. I felt like I had a chance to make it.”

Bounce . . . bounce  . . . bounce . . . let fly at midcourt. Nothing but net. A 70-69 victory. And wait till you hear what words are printed on the baseline under that very basket.

“We didn’t realize until after the game,” California Baptist coach Rick Croy said over the phone the next day, “that the floor even said Expect A Miracle.”

First true Division I game in school history? A winning half-court Hail Mary at the buzzer, after two teams combined for 13 points and three lead changes in the final 63 seconds? A miracle, on a court that said to expect it? Huh?

“We could not have scripted it any better,” Croy said.

“You always dreams of moments like that,” Acquaah said. “And for it to come to fruition . . . I feel like it really set the tone for our season.”

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Croy’s program has been preparing to make this leap for years. Takes nerve. Takes planning. Takes players. “It’s kind of surreal,” Croy said. “There’s a lot of excitement from your former players, your current guys are excited, the school’s excited, the community’s excited. But then as the game gets closer, you have to remember it’s all about preparation and competing. It’s definitely been an interesting journey. It’s historic. There’s not too many coaching staffs that get to do this. So we’re trying to enjoy it.”

This should be clear: The Lancers didn’t show up looking like wide-eyed small-town tourists getting their first look at New York City. In Croy’s first five seasons, they were a downright bully in Division II — his record 132-29, including 79-7 at home. They were in the DII quarterfinals last year.

“Your culture, you carry forward with you,” he said. “It’s been a culture of work, it’s been a culture of brotherhood. Those values don’t change. When you’re trying to win, when you’re fighting for inches, you’re going to fall back on the key pillars that you put in place in the years prior to making the move.”

Still, they’re in the pond with the big fish now.

“I see it being hard, but any journey’s hard in basketball,” Acquaah said. “As long as we embrace the challenge, we should be fine. Nobody’s not human and not able to lose.”

Yeah, that’s the idea. Especially next Monday when the Lancers show up in Reno to play No. 6 Nevada. Welcome to Division I.

“We’re going to appreciate all the moments along the way,” Croy said. “We’ll be fearless running into that storm, too.”

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Fearless. The team’s season theme. The lone senior, Jordan Heading, came up with that one.

Croy is hoping such way of thinking will ease the transition.

“The chemistry of your group, you can’t always strategize for it. There’s an organic component that has to occur. They really pull for each other, they know it’s going to be a tough journey and, they’ve totally embraced that together.”

He has some talent, too. He built a DII juggernaut by recruiting far and wide. There are three Australians on the roster, including Heading, who is averaging 16.5 points. There are also several new transfers with D-I experience. Acquaah saw service at Washington State. He’s averaging 19 points after his first two games.

Acquaah’s initial reaction about going to California Baptist?  “I knew it was in California but I didn’t know what city. I’m sure (the other transfers) all had the same questions I had.”

It’s in Riverside, not all that far from Disneyland, the Happiest Place on Earth. But it wasn’t any happier than the California Baptist locker room at Oral Roberts Tuesday night.

The Lancers are savoring it all. The 5,000 fans there for the 87-71 season opening win over NAIA San Diego Christian. Tuesday’s highlight show entry. And all the possibilities to come.

“Our mantra is Fearless. Our opponent really doesn’t matter,” Acquaah said. “I’m sure people didn’t know where the school was or hadn’t heard of it before. After this year, I’m sure we’ll be on the map.”

The Lancers are in the WAC but won’t be eligible for the conference or NCAA tournaments until 2022-23 (but can play in the CIT and CBI). So those are carrots temporarily missing at the end of the season. “Right now, there’s so many things for us to hunt as a group, and there’s so much excitement and energy,” Croy said, “the positives are overwhelming any potential negatives down the path.”

Right now, it’s the process of trying to belong. Tuesday night, they belonged all right.

“Everyone asks you about all the different things that you want to change, and I keep thinking about all the things that we don’t want to change,” Croy said. “We’ve had really good leadership in our program, we want that to remain a constant. Our teams have competed very well on the road. So you kind of come back to all the things that you’ve been doing.”

It’s only November, not usually the time for keepsakes. But you'd understand if they were tempted to carry something away from Oral Roberts.

“I told the guys, just memories,” Croy said. “I think we’ll all remember that shot last night.”

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