LOOKOUT MOUNTAIN -- Optimistic goals at the beginning the of year, turned into a reality during the season and the Covenant men's basketball team turned in a historical year 2015-16 campaign.
The Scots went 18-10 overall and finished second in the USA South regular season, but would go on and win three games in three days to claim the conference tournament title and a trip to the NCAA Division III Tournament for the first time. Covenant's 18 wins are the fourth-most in the program's history and the .643 winning percentage is the highest ever.
Under seventh-year head coach Kyle Taylor, the Scots were only picked to finish 10th in the 11-team USA South in the preseason coaches' poll. At the beginning of the season, Taylor believed his squad could get to 15 wins but his team did much better than that.
With 10 returners from 2014-15 mixed in with three significant newcomers, the Scots made program history. The conference tournament title was the first league championship of any kind since 1964 and the NCAA Tournament was just the third national tournament appearance in program history (and the first since 1987).
GAME OF THE YEAR: Covenant 101, LaGrange 92 (OT) - Feb. 27, 2016 (USA South Tournament championship)
It's not hard to figure out the biggest game of the year. Although Covenant had critical victories during the regular season (including two wins vs. Maryville, and road wins at N.C. Wesleyan, Averett and William Peace), the season came down to the USA South Tournament title.
Playing a LaGrange team that had already beaten the Scots twice during the regular season, Covenant had its work cut out.
Covenant struggled in the opening minutes of the game as LaGrange opened an early 12-5 lead. The Scots settled in after that and the game went back-and-forth for much of the first half. Down 34-32 with under three minutes left in the period, Covenant went on a 14-2 run to end the half and take a 46-34 lead. TJ Cox and Berto Dryden buried 3-pointers and Connor Sears capped the run with a jumper in the final seconds giving Covenant a 12-point edge.
The run continued into the second half as the Scots scored the first eight points, finished off by a Cox steal and layup with 18:13 left and a 54-36 lead for Covenant.
LaGrange, the two-time defending conference tournament champion, would not go down easily. The Panthers methodically chipped away at the Covenant lead and got within one possession at 81-79 after a Mark Wagner 3-pointer with 31 seconds left. Covenant made just 2-of-4 free throws in the final 30 seconds leaving the door open for the Panthers who capitalized when Justyn Olson made a driving layup with 3.3 seconds left tying the score at 83. Cox managed to get off a 35-foot 3-point attempt as time expired, but the shot hit the front of the rim and rolled off sending the game into overtime.
LaGrange struck first in the extra session before Covenant went on a 7-2 run, capped by consecutive layups from Z Arima and Patjo Twagirayezu, giving the Scots a 90-88 lead with 2:03 left. On Covenant's next possession, Twagirayezu converted a three-point play that put Covenant up 93-88 with 1:31 remaining. LaGrange could not answer and Covenant made 5-of-6 free throws in the final 40 seconds to secure the win and the title.
Cox was named Tournament MVP after scoring 21 points with eight assists in the championship. Dryden added 22 points, five rebounds and four assists, while Bailey Spragg scored 14 points. Dryden and Spragg earned spots on the All-Tournament team for their efforts. Twagirayezu (12) and Sears (10) also scored in double digits.
HIGHLIGHT OF THE YEAR:
Will Portlock's buzzer-beating jumper that gave Covenant a 79-77 victory at William Peace on Jan. 15, 2016
10 different players averaged at least 10 minutes per game on the season for Taylor. That depth played a crucial role throughout the year.
Cox led the team in scoring at 14.6 points per game and assists at 3.6 per game and was a first team All-USA South selection. The senior scored a career-high 34 points in a regular season victory over an eventual NCAA Tournament participant in Birmingham Southern. Cox picked up USA South Player of the Week honors after the scoring outburst. Cox scored in double digits 22 times on the year.
Dryden, a transfer from Thiel College, made an immediate impact in the backcourt. The sophomore scored 10.6 points per game to go with 3.4 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game. Dryden scored 22 points in the USA South title game and 22 points in the tournament opener vs. William Peace. Fellow transfer Twagirayzeu, who came to Covenant from Milligan College, averaged 7.9 points and 5.1 rebounds per game to lend a hand in the Scots' frontcourt.
Spragg was the only freshman to see significant time on the court and he made the most of it. The freshman was a two-time USA South Rookie of the Week honoree and was named to the USA South All-Tournament team. Spragg averaged 6.9 points with 1.8 assists and 2.9 rebounds per game on the year.
Junior Ben Phelps continued to display his 3-point shot ability as he knocked down 49.5 percent from behind the arc and scored eight points per game. At one point during the year, Phelps led Division III in 3-point percentage. Fellow junior Will Portlock battled through an injury midway through the year to average 6.5 points and produced a buzzer-beating jumper to defeat William Peace on Jan. 15 (highlight above). Sears, another junior, started 18 games and scored 6.5 points with 4.4 rebounds per game, while Arima chipped in 4.7 points and played an important role on the defensive end.
Seniors Chris Boyd and Daniel Garrett finished their careers on a strong note. Boyd poured in 6.4 points and 5.5 rebounds, which led the team, per game. Garrett played in 26 games and recorded a double-double in a victory at Huntingdon on Feb. 13.
COMMENTS ON THE SEASON FROM KYLE TAYLOR:
On the team:
"We had a great group that trusted each other, respected each other, enjoyed each other, and loved each other. That was the difference for us."
On the conference tournament run:
"Incredible three day run in Rocky Mount. Double-digit leads in all three games, made a lot of clutch free throws down the stretch. And of course the championship game, giving up a 19-point lead, then showing the resilience to win it in overtime was remarkable."
On the seniors:
"They were a selfless group that put the needs of the team above their own desires. Give those six men a lot of the credit for our teams success. They set the tone that the rest of the team followed."
"Relentlessness was what I emphasized all year, and this group showed their relentlessness on defense and throughout the season."
USA South All-Conference
TJ Cox - 1st team
USA South All-Sportsmanship
USA South All-Tournament
TJ Cox - MVP
TJ Cox - 2nd team
USA South Player of the Week
TJ Cox - Dec. 14
USA South Rookie of the Week
Bailey Spragg - Jan. 18 and Jan. 25
USA South Sportsmanship Award
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