In a record-breaking season, Oakland City University basketball men can set another school record by achieving what was missing from their last two seasons:
A Christian College National Invitational Tournament championship in Johnson Center, where they won the first four CCNITs before placing third in 2016 and second to Southwestern Adventist last March.
They'll start their bid when they pit a 14-game win streak and 22-2 record vs. Johnson University (5-23), of Kissimmee, Fla., at 7 p.m. Thursday in the last quarterfinal game of the eight-team tourney. Their 22 wins are a program record for a regular season, and by sweeping three games in the CCNIT they can top the school record of 24 wins, postseason included, by their 2012-13 predecessors.
"We've played out of our minds all season and we must do that this week," Coach Mike Sandifar said. "Right now we're gathering information on Johnson. We'll go one game at a time. We'll try to get by the first game and go from there. Every team in this tournament is good regardless of record. Johnson has lost a lot of close games. Had they won those close ones, they could be 17-game winners coming in here."
The Mighty Oaks are healthier than they've been for a while, though 6-foot-9 sophomore and backup center Austin Robertson won't play due to an early-season injury. Senior guard Andre Bearden, a starter the first 12 games before a right thumb fracture, played in the February 24 regular-season final vs. Robert Morris-Springfield (Ill.) and is practicing. Bearden is averaging 10.5 points. Senior and backup guard Christian Marks, limited to seven games by a leg injury that was found to be a fracture, not shin splints as he thought, is also practicing and ready to return to his role as an early sub. Marks has averaged four points.
"I see Andre and Christian both playing," Sandifar said. "But we'll start Mitch Frederick (6-4 junior averaging 4.4 points and 5.1 rebounds) or Beau Hefner (6-1 sophomore averaging 5 points) at guard along with Joe Hinton (5-7 senior floor leader averaging 5.4 points, 4 assists and 2.4 steals)."
OCU's Big Three, all juniors, have combined to average almost 69 points. Logan Worthington, shooting 46.8 percent on threes, logged 23.7 points and 10.9 rebounds the regular season. Addison Wagler is producing 23.2 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.5 assists, the latter total including 13 in one game and 11 in another. Andrew Scott, shooting 43.8 percent on threes, is averaging 22.9 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2 blocks.
Scott's 1,477 career points stand seventh in Mighty Oaks history. Wagler's 1,369 stands 12th. Saturday's CCNIT placement round, capped by the 8 p.m. championship game, looms as Wagler's career finale since he plans to graduate in May and not play a fourth season.
A number of which Sandifar is proud is his team's 10 turnovers per game, opponents are committing 15.8.
Johnson opened eyes with a senior night win over Trinity Baptist.
"A 15-point win over the team ranked 10th in the National Christian College Athletic Association poll," Suns Coach Craig Wilsman said. "Eleven of our losses have come by six of fewer points. Eight of those losses were by three, two or one. We've been competitive, so close so often. We lost by two to Piedmont International, an NCCAA Division I team."
Freshman guard Phil LeGrier leads the Suns with 14.7 points per game, followed by 6-5 junior Kendall Oliver at 12.9. Point-guard Jaymeke Smith produces 10.3 points and 4 assists. Senior Marquis Smith adds 7.7 points, 6-5 senior Jon Baker 7.3 points and 4 rebounds, 6-4 sophomore Oscar Duzanson 4.6 points. Freshman Garriot Jones is also apt to see action.
"We know Oakland City is a quality team and they'll be rested, but we'll give them a battle," Wilsman said. "It'll be a fun environment."
This game's winner will meet Hiwassee or Carolina Christian at 7 p.m. Friday in the second semifinal. This game's loser will play at 3 Friday vs. the Hiwassee-Carolina Christian loser.