The NIC Men’s Basketball team claimed its first Northwest Athletic Conference Championship in school history Sunday night. The Cardinals overcame a 20-point deficit to beat the Peninsula Pirates 90-83 for the title.
“We just never gave up, you know. Coach emphasizes that when times get tough to keep your head up. It was looking ugly at the beginning, and I know a couple of us were worried, but we just pulled through and took it play by play,” Freshman RayQuan Evans said.
Evans, NWAC Freshman of the Year, had a relatively quiet 28 points, adding nine rebounds en route to taking home the NWAC Tournament MVP. In the four playoff games, Evans dropped 131 points for an average of nearly 33 per game. His clutch free throws down the stretch in overtime helped the Cards put the game away.
Evans was the easy choice for Most Valuable Player, but sophomore Aushanti Potts-Woods gave him a run for his money, dropping 23 in the championship game, hitting shot after shot in the fourth quarter to force overtime and keep the Cardinals in the game. After only averaging over seven points a game in the regular season, Potts-Woods exploded in the playoffs, emerging as the clear-cut second option behind Evans.
“We never thought we were done,” said Potts-Woods. “We just told each other that they threw their hardest punch, and that we had to come together and not break apart when we went down 20. We stuck together and fought back together slowly but surely and got the win.”
Behind them Iain McLaughlin played a big role off the bench, adding 14 big points.
The Cardinals looked like they might be headed for a runner-up finish when they were down 20 early in the second half. Multiple times, the commentators dropped the word ‘blowout’ in reference to Peninsula’s dominant game up to that point. But, as has been the case for much of the year, and especially in the playoffs, the never-say-die attitude of the Cards elevated them to the top.
“These kids have nothing but resilience, they just fight. That’s a pretty amazing job, you know, we were down by 20 and they fought back. They just never gave up,” said a proud Coach Corey Symons.
The win is a long time coming for a program that has been a staple at the top of conference play for the last decade or so. Their dominance in the post-season is what helped attract these high-level players to the panhandle of Idaho. Potts-Woods told reporters after the game that the traditions at NIC made it such an easy choice for him to come to Coeur d’Alene. “I looked at their history, they had a great coaching staff, and it was a pretty easy decision,” he said
A great coaching staff might be an understatement. The job that Symons has done in under four years at NIC has been nothing short of spectacular. But for the all-business head coach, the real question now becomes where that first NWAC championship trophy is going to stay.
“I have a nice little place in my office if my athletic director will let me keep it,” Symons said. “I don’t know, he might take it.”