BELTON- Clif Carroll does not believe in beginning postseason tournament preparation during the week of a tournament. For the UMHB head coach, who is leading his top-seeded Crusaders into this week’s American Southwest Conference Tournament, preparing for these situations begins the first time his team walks onto the floor in October.
“If you’re doing this the right way,” Carroll said, “you’re preparing your team to win tournaments the entire season. Everything that you should be doing should be pointing towards success for us in February and March.”
This is the time that Carroll and his team live for. This is why they played a schedule of 24 games. It has been in preparation for this week, where the wins and losses of the past three months are no longer the deciding factor, but the work put in is. What happens in the next several days, as Carroll noted Monday, could easily decide the fate of UMHB’s season.
“Thursday could literally be our last game,” Carroll said. “So we have to do everything we can to win that game. But on the other end of it, do you sacrifice Friday and Saturday just to win Thursday?
“Luckily it’s easy for me because I have a deep team and I feel comfortable playing a lot of guys. We’re going to get into the bench.”
The depth of the team, ranked No. 7 in the nation by D3hoops.com, is anticipated to be a key advantage for the Cru, in a tournament in which it will take three wins in three days to claim the conference title. Not to say that will be out of the ordinary for the tournament hosts, who will host No. 8 seed Concordia at Belton’s Mayborn Campus Center at 7:30 p.m. tonight. Twice this season, UMHB has won on consecutive days.
“You try to get your team in a tournament setting,” Carroll said, elaborating on what preparation for the postseason looks like for his team. “Our Las Vegas deal [at the D3hoops.com Classic], was kind of a tournament setting. It wasn’t three games in three days, but it was back-to-back nights with a really late game.
“You can also prepare your team in practice. We’ve had some times where I put them through three absolutely brutal practices on back-to-back days and when it happens in October and November, the guys are thinking, ‘Man, coach must really be mad at us.’”
But that is far from the case. Even when his assistant coaches may not fully understand it, Carroll has a plan in mind that will play into his team’s performance late in the year.
“What I’m really doing [with those practices] is trying to figure out how we react on the third day,” Carroll continued. “The players and the assistants sometimes don’t even understand what I’m doing. But when it comes down to a stop on Saturday, and your legs are really tired, they’re going to have already had that feeling and fight through it.”
The tournament’s top seed, UMHB is aiming at its first ASC tournament title since 2010. And if the Crusaders manage to win in Saturday’s championship game, they will clinch a spot in the NCAA D-III Tournament for the first time since 2013.
Aiding in Carroll’s squad’s advantages entering the weekend is that the team is playing on its home court, in front of a largely pro-UMHB crowd. For Belton native Carson Hammond, playing in the gym he is most comfortable in, and in his hometown, makes the situation the best of both worlds.
“It’s going to be awesome to host the tournament,” Hammond said. “It should be a great atmosphere and I will be able to have some family and friends in the stands.”
“There’s positives and negatives both ways,” Carroll, whose team is 12-0 at home, added. “You have to be able to win tournaments at home. You have to be able to win if you’re on the road. But there’s a reason why we’re undefeated at home. We have great crowds. We feed off our crowds. Our guys are comfortable here in this gym.”
That comfort was evident in the team’s final two games of the regular season last week, as UMHB downed Belhaven and ETBU, finishing the conference schedule at 17-2.
Despite trailing at halftime of Thursday’s duel with Belhaven, 41-33, the Crusaders came out of the break with an unmatched intensity, shooting 58 percent from the field in the second half. UMHB outscored the opposition 53-32 over the final 20 minutes, capturing an 86-73 win.
A much different team took the floor in the first half, as opposed to the second, and the scoreboard was evidence of that. In a heart-to-heart halftime conversation, Carroll preached a change to the negativity that hampered the Cru’s performance early on.
“We had so many negative reactions to officiating calls, mistakes our teammates were making, and missed shots,” Carroll said postgame. “So we went in there at halftime, and I said, ‘We have to change this. This can’t stand.’”
It did not. The Cru picked up where it left off in Saturday’s regular season finale, playing with a similar amount of offensive success against ETBU as it did in the second half against Belhaven. With another quality second half of shooting, UMHB connected on 62 percent of its shots, edging the Tigers 94-90.
ETBU cut the UMHB lead to four points on several occasions over the final half, but did not reclaim the lead. With 6.8 seconds left, Darry Moore’s layup fell through, as the Cru’s advantage narrowed to three. But unphased coming out of an ensuing timeout, Josiah Johnson added a free throw for UMHB, which sealed the 94-90 victory, and powered the Cru straight into the postseason.
There has been a different intensity level within UMHB’s daily practices leading up to tonight’s game. And that is something Carroll attributes to the character of his team, composed of players who have performed best in the biggest moments of the season already.
“The really good teams figure out how to bring it in February and March,” Carroll noted. “That’s why you look for those kinds of kids, those players who are going to rise to the challenge and be special when the chips are down.”
Riley Zayas is the managing editor of True To The Cru, a website and media outlet that covers UMHB athletics in-depth, telling the stories behind the score. To read the latest on Crusader athletics, visit Truetothecru.com. Zayas can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.