Since joining the Division I ranks and the Mid-South Conference to begin the 2010-2011 season, the Bears captured their second straight tournament championship Sunday after making the finals in four of their first six seasons.
However, with the 75-62 victory over Campbellsville, Shawnee State has won its first regular season and conference-tournament title in the same year.
“It’s a great honor,” Bears head coach Jeff Nickel said. “When you look back on your season, it’s nice to see where you started. Where you start, where you’re at now and where you want to be. We started off like any other team. We had good players, but we didn’t have the chemistry and we weren’t anything special at that point. But we’ve consistently gotten better every day, every week and every month. It’s the culmination of our persistence.
“The Mid-South is the toughest conference in NAIA, and for our kids to go out and go through that grueling schedule, and to win the league, it’s just a great accomplishment. But then you validate it with a conference-tournament championship, you play three games in four days, I just couldn’t be more proud of the group of kids.”
The last time SSU won a regular season and conference-tournament title in the same year was 2003 when Shawnee was part of the American Mideast Conference, which is in Division II of the NAIA.
“I think it’s just about validation,” Nickel said. “You validate your regular-season title with a conference-tournament title. That’s what we wanted to accomplish this weekend. We wanted to validate that league title, and go out there and finish the job. I was really proud we were able to do that.
“I can’t say enough about our kids persistence. They’ve been driven all year to be successful. That’s the thing that I think separates us from a lot of teams — our persistence and our drive to be successful. That was very evident throughout the regular season.”
With the regular season and conference-tournament title now in their hip pocket, the Bears are focused on the NAIA tournament. With a 28-5 record and a top 10 national ranking heading into the tournament, Nickel said SSU will more than likely receive a No. 2 seed but a No. 1 seed is still a distinct possibility.
“I think success breeds success,” Nickel said. “Our kids were obviously happy and ecstatic about winning (Sunday), but I feel like they still want more. We were happy and we’ve celebrated, but I feel like they know there is still a job to do.”
The Bears embarked on this season with three goals — capture a conference championship, win the conference tournament, and win the NAIA tournament. So far, the Bears have achieved their first two goals.
“Right now we’ve reach two of those three goals,” Nickel said. “We’re right there to be able to accomplish all three. You don’t draw your way into a national championship, you’ve got to play your way in.”
Even though they have the accolades and tournament resume, the Bears will have their work cut out for them once the NAIA tournament begins.
“The best team doesn’t always win the national championship. It’s going to be the team that plays the best,” Nickel said.
The Bears won all three conference tournament games by double digits. Shawnee State faced St. Catherine (Ky.) in the first round, prevailing 75-50. Jen Arnzen led SSU in scoring with 15 points. Five Bears scored in double figures. Aside from Arnzen’s 15, Lydia Poe scored 14, Abby Feuchter 13, Madison Ridout 12 and Ali Zieverink chipped in with 10 points.
SSU beat Pikeville in a semifinal game 88-69. Freshman Ashton Lovely scored 34 points on 11-of-19 shooting, including 8-of-12 from 3-point range. Zieverink scored 24 while Ridout added 15 points in the victory.
In their 75-62 triumph in the championship game, Zieverink led Shawnee State over Campbellsville, scoring 31 points while grabbing 20 rebounds. Ridout and Feuchter scored 12 points a piece.
Reach Chris Slone at 740-353-3101, ext 1930, or on Twitter @crslone.