The Tennessee Temple starting five made sure they got Saturday's NCCAA Mid-East Regional off on the right foot.
Then the Crusaders' bench went about the business of winning the school's first region championship since the magic season of 2003.
Corey Sanders scored 19 points with four assists and Rashaud Bell doubled up with 12 points and 12 rebounds as the Crusaders defeated tournament top seed Mid-Continent 80-72 for their 13th straight victory.
Neither Sanders nor Bell nor Elliott Johnson (11 points, five rebounds) started for Temple Saturday.
But first-year Crusaders head coach Brac Brady has no complaints about his first five Saturday; all they did was score the game's first 12 points and build a 16-2 lead that Mid-American could only catch, not overcome.
"Those guys were phenomenal off the bench -- after our starters got us off to a great start," said Brady, who took the Temple job last April but did not arrive on campus until June. "Those guys don't mind coming off the bench; that's just a testament to everyone buying into the team concept."
It's easy to buy into something that works every time
The Crusaders (22-11) have not lost since Johnson -- named the Mid-East Conference regular season MVP following the game -- became eligible after transferring from Lee University. But he has remained on the sidelines as Brady likes to pick his spots to put the talented swing player into the mix.
Saturday, those who started all had a hand in the quick start, which left the Cougars temporarily dazed and confused. Travaris Clarke started the day right with a 3-point bomb just 18 seconds into the game. Hampton Mack doubled the lead with a conventional three-point play barely 30 seconds later. Center John Jones had a put-back and Weedlens Beauvil hit a layup off a dish from point guard P.J. Whittaker to draw a time-out call from Mid-Continent coach (and former Kentucky All-American) Winston Bennett.
The lead moved to 12-0 on a Bell layup before Mid-Continent got on the scoreboard, but the top-seeded Cougars quickly closed the gap to four and hung close for most of the half. However, tournament MVP Sanders worked his magic to snap Temple out of a funk that saw the home team go over five minutes without a field goal. Leading just 32-28, the Crusaders got three straight field goals from the Brainerd High product on a driving layup, a 3-pointer from well beyond the top of the key and an acrobatic three-point play on a driving layup to restore a nine-point lead that the Crusaders took to the half.
But Temple had another scoring lapse in its future, as Mid-Continent's defense remained tenacious. Between 19:04 to go in the game and 11:35, the Crusaders managed only one field goal (a Sanders 3-pointer), which allowed Mid-Continent to draw even for the first time all day, 51-51, on a Lee Ames jumper.
Over the next two minutes, Temple would thrice score, only to have Mid-Continent tie action at 53, 55 and 57. It was only after a Brady timeout did momentum return to the Crusaders, scoring eight straight with Johnson (four points) at the heart of the run and Bell with a key put-back. In fact, offensive rebounds were a huge part of the difference Saturday, as Temple crashed its own boards for 23 second chances, seven from Bell.
Mid-Continent would not get that close again, but the game had the requisite ending that Temple's first two wins in the tournament shared -- protecting the lead. The Crusaders got the ball to Sanders and let him ice the cake from the foul line. Sanders hit four in the final 42 seconds and 7 of 7 in the game. For the tournament, he hit 24 of 25 foul shots to ensure his MVP award (no all-tournament team was named).
"We had fun today, but winning is what it's all about," said Sanders moments before he climbed up onto the rim as part of the net-cutting ceremony. "We really wanted to win this -- we've won every game since Johnson joined us."
That alone should put the Crusaders (22-11) among the teams to watch in the NCCAA National Tournament, upcoming in Winona Lake, Ind. It is their first trip to the tournament since 2003, when first-team All-American Josh Templeton led them to the overall championship.
David Jenkins; Chattanoogan