By Kevin Wilson: CNJ staff writer
It’s the last year for a Clovis trio in Abilene, Texas — and in another way, it’s a last year for the McMurry basketball team they’re a part of.
Coached by former Clovis High coach J.D. Isler, with former Wildcat guards Jaden Isler and Bryce Hill in their senior seasons, the McMurry University War Hawks get set to make their final, and they hope, greatest run in the Division III men’s basketball tournament.
The War Hawks (20-8), who will make the move to Division II next season, take on Whitworth University 5:30 p.m. (CDT) today in a first-round contest at Mary-Hardin Baylor University in Belton, Texas.
“I think we’ve really peaked at the right time,” said Jaden Isler, named Most Outstanding Player of the American Southwest Conference tournament. “We’ve continued to get better, and we’re playing our best basketball right now.”
They’ll need to, with the 10th-ranked Pirates coming to Texas. Whitworth (24-3) won its sixth consecutive Northwest Conference title last week, and have three players averaging double figures, led by Idris Lasisi’s 16.9 points per game. Forward Felix Friedt averages 16 points and eight rebounds a game for the Spokane, Wash.-based Pirates.
“They’re a little bit bigger than us,” said Coach Isler, who came to McMurry after 10 years at CHS. “Looking at film, they play a little more methodical. I don’t think they want an uptempo game at all, and we do.”
Led by Steven Jones (17.4 ppg, 9.0 rpg), the War Hawks claimed their second-straight ASC title despite barely getting in as the West Division’s third seed. The top four seeds in each division advanced to the conference tournament.
By winning the conference tournament, McMurry received an automatic berth into the 62-team field (Amherst and Virginia Wesleyan received first-round byes and homecourt advantage in the Round of 32).
“I think we’ve just hit our stride,” Coach Isler said. “We’re playing really well together. Being my first year, it takes a team time to buy into the system, and get on the same page. We’ve been under a lot of pressure for the last three weeks, playing for our lives to get into the tournament.”
A win would put McMurry in a Round of 32 game with either Trinity (20-8) or Mary Hardin-Baylor (28-2), which suffered both of its losses at the hands of McMurry.
The War Hawks made a Sweet 16 run in 2001 and an Elite Eight run the year before.
Jaden Isler leads the ASC with 5.8 assists per game to go with 13.3 points, while Hill is averaging 14 points per game and shooting 40.5 percent from 3-point range.
“We’re as confident as we’re going to be,” Hill said. “It’s not a cockiness. We know if we do us, we’re pretty hard to stop. We move the ball, everybody gets involved. We’re more confident as a unit instead of a bunch of individuals.”