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April 9, 2018

From last in the standings to the last one standing

An oral history of the Men's Basketball Team's tournament run

Noah Syverson, Viking Fusion Reporter

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Credit: Berry Athletics

Over the course of three magical days in February, the Vikings men's basketball team went from unknown to unforgettable. On the back of a group of seniors that had seen it all, the #8 seed team in the 2018 SAA tournament won three straight games to capture the conference title. This is their story.

Caleb Johnson, Senior Forward: Let's back up. Preseason, we took a trip to Costa Rica. We go to Costa Rica, scrimmage the national team twice, and we split with them. And so we came back thinking, man, we're the best team in the conference, like, nobody can beat us, we're the most talented team, we have so much depth. And then our third game of the season, we host Emory, end up losing by six [109-103], and we thought that the Emory game was a good gauge to see where we were at as far as being able to compete at the national level. So we're feelin' really good leading up into conference.

But after a non-conference slate that sees them go 5-6 against some tough opponents, the Vikings start out the "second season" by losing eight of their first nine games in conference.

Johnson: At the beach in Costa Rica, we had sat down, just the players, and we wrote out goals. A lot of goals we thought were obtainable at the time—going undefeated at home, twenty win season, ten-plus wins in conference. All these things.

A lot of the frustration that came throughout the regular season was...we're not reaching those goals. We're not where we said we wanted to be. I think a lot of people kinda started to splinter apart, because we were all trying to find a way to reach those goals. We knew we had the potential, but it was just a lot of different approaches.

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Credit: Berry Athletics

Tony McIntosh, Berry College Football and Basketball Radio Announcer—the "Voice of Berry": We had the willpower, we had the ability—I think the talent on the team was probably better than the teams we got beat by. It just wasn't gelling yet.

Nick Marder, Senior Guard: We kind of tried to change our system a little bit. Started bickering a little bit between ourselves, because we knew that we had the talent to win games, but it was just frustrating because we weren't, you know, winning.

McIntosh: Nobody wants to finish the regular season sub-500. But—they lost a lot of close games. And they left a lot of points on the floor. A lot of games they had an opportunity to win, just, something, an element or two was missing.

Berry comes up on the last game of the regular season, a Senior Night home matchup against Oglethorpe, with a 2-10 conference record. Oglethorpe is the third seeded team in the conference at the time.

"That week leading up to the Senior Night game, everything started coming together during practice."

- Matt Mixer, Assistant Coach

Marder: Well before that big Oglethorpe game we played Centre, and we lost to them at their gym, pretty badly. Coach knew we were going to play them again on their home court in two weeks for the conference tournament. Coach kind of came up with a new strategy. Start playing more physical. And so we practiced the whole week trying to be physical, keeping people out of the paint, making people think twice about shooting the ball.

Matt Mixer, Assistant Coach: That week leading up to the Senior Night game, everything started coming together during practice. We started getting more physical, everybody started gelling together.

Daniel Ellis, Assistant Coach: Leading up to that Oglethorpe game, we really worked on being more physical, being more aggressive, being the aggressor. The guys were focused, they knew what was ahead of them. And we really used that Senior Night game as a springboard.

Marder: That physicality that we added to our game, once we started beating Oglethorpe, throughout the game we were like 'Okay, this is working'

Mixer: We had legitimately nine guys that were just playing lights out all over the court. Diving on balls, sitting down on defense. We had three or four shot clock violations that game and we probably had three or four all season before that.

McIntosh: Something sparked. They got more physical, and when they did that, it shocked a lot of teams. Oglethorpe especially—a team that was in first place a lot of the season until the last couple of weeks.

Johnson: In that last week of the regular season, just learning to be more aggressive. And instead of taking the first blow, hitting first.

Mixer: Everything that we had talked about and were focused on the entire season—where, instead of having three of our five cylinders hitting, it was all five.

McIntosh: That was the beginning of the run to the championship.

 
Quarterfinal: #8 Berry College Vikings (3-11) vs. #1 Centre College Colonels (12-2)
A #8 seed has never beaten a #1 seed in the history of the SAA tournament.
 

Marder: During that week of practice leading up to the [Centre] game, we were having a bad practice on that Tuesday. And Coach brought us all into the locker room and he said 'If you don't think we can beat Centre, get out of the locker room.' He just told us that we had a great gameplan, a great system in place, and that we were going to execute and that we were going to win.

Mixer: We kept it relaxed, we didn't change up our routine, we didn't change any of our game-time prep. We just kept it normal.

Ellis: Our guys were very eager to get going. We knew we matched up with them, pound for pound. In the history of Berry's program we had never beaten them before.

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Credit: Berry Athletics

Johnson: [Before the game] I wore this shirt that we got in the beginning of the year before the season even started. And on the back of it, it says "Start Unknown, Finish Unforgettable"

Mixer: The analogy we used was, 'It's their house, their court, so you have to kick in the door and take it from them. They're not going to give it to you.'

Marder: It was an interesting warmup. We were the first game of the day, so we had a lot of time to stretch, a lot of time on the court. And then we had a great Character Moment—what was it?

Johnson: Oh yeah, yeah. So we had this thing that we did--Coach Phil Wade, who's the pastor at Northside, he's our character coach. And he was talking about his devotion, and his key takeaways. And then he had this formula: focused intensity over forty minutes of a basketball game multiplied by God equals momentum. And we rode with that.

Gametime—1:00 p.m.

Matt Mixer: In the first five minutes of a game, you see how guys are getting into the game—and it was the first time, I think, that our guys had ever seen Centre on their heels. Not knowing how to handle our pressure, not knowing what to do with having all five of our guys literally kicking down the door.

Tony McIntosh: I mean, you had guys hitting shots that hadn't been falling all year. McCarty Forte is a great three-point shooter. I love the guy. And he was finally getting his shots, getting open, and he was nailing them. Alton McCloud was just a beast on the boards. Nick Marder always is a tough defender. [Coleman] Ellingsworth is Mr. Shot Blocker himself. And then Caleb Johnson just played outside himself. Those guys, along with Elijah [Hirsh], Myles [Moore]--they all just wanted to win.

Caleb Johnson: We never lost hope or trust in what we had put into going into that game—we never wavered from the game plan, we never lost faith in each other, especially down the stretch. Confidence, and just playing for your brother.

Tony McIntosh: I was at the women's tournament game down at Oglethorpe, but I was providing score updates for the men's game. And I just remember thinking, 'This is the team that we've had all year.'

Nick Marder: Elijah [Hirsh] definitely put the team on his back. Myles [Moore] stepped up.

Caleb Johnson: We knew that Centre was gonna come out and give it their all. We beat a really good team and just never wavered. Whenever they went on 10-0 runs, we never wavered, we never flinched, we just stuck to what we were doing, and we did it for each other. That was the biggest part, that was the biggest motivation.

Matt Mixer: We'd go on a little run, six or seven points at a time, and they'd immediately answer back.

Caleb Johnson: It was probably, maybe around the five minute mark. I noticed it on the floor, and then Coach talked about it after the season—there’s a time when you can see that a team is losing it. And they start to splinter apart, and they start to point fingers and blame each other, and they did that going into one of the media timeouts towards the end of the game. And Coach said he looked at Coach Ellis, and was like, ‘This is it. This is their tipping point.’ And we kinda just knew from then that if we executed, got three stops in a row, and made free throws that the game would be ours.

Tony McIntosh: They went up there, into hostile territory, into a packed gym, and beat the number one team. The home team. It was a home game for Centre.

Final:
Berry 97    
Centre 93

Ellis (laughing): The celebration was fun. It was definitely wild in the locker room after that game. Just the relief. Those guys had been wanting that win for four years for those seniors. It was great to enjoy it with them.

Marder: We got to stay on the court for a little bit, we all got to celebrate as a team. We had Corey [Johnson] doing flips on the court. Got into the locker room, and we had uh…we had this little party (chuckles). Somebody ended up breaking a mirror (looking at Caleb). Water’s all over the floor.

McIntosh: When that final score update came in from the game, it was just unreal. I texted Coach, and when he replied, I could just tell that he was extremely happy. I could picture his grin just from reading his response.

Credit: Berry Athlectics
 

Marder: We were happy but we knew we had two more games to win and we knew we weren’t done yet.

Johnson: After our meal that night, we were watching film at the hotel. And Coach Rogers was just like ‘I don’t see anything different. If we just do what we did tonight, then this shouldn’t be a problem.’

The whole theme going into that tournament was just “Rewind and press play.” Do what we did the game before. So that was the mindset we had going against Birmingham Southern. If we just were the aggressor, were the most physical team, got all the hustle plays, continue to rebound, and run their shooters off the line—we’d be fine.

Mixer: We let the guys enjoy it, obviously, for fifteen, twenty minutes. Then Coach walked in and goes 'Tomorrow night it's rewind, press play.

Ellis: The whole season we had stated that all we cared about was winning three games in three days, so we knew the job was just getting started.

Mixer: We booked our hotel for the entire weekend because we wanted to be there for the entire weekend.

"When David went to the river he picked up five stones to kill Goliath. But he killed him with the first one. So, I told the guys, we still got four stones left in our pocket, we’re not done with this giant that we have to overcome."

-Caleb Johnson, Senior Forward

Semifinal: #8 Berry College Vikings (4-11) vs. #5 Birmingham-Southern College Panthers (8-7)

Johnson: For myself, I shared this with the guys—I was doing the devotional on the way to the game. It was 2 Samuel Chapter 17, which is the story of David and Goliath. As I was reading it, I was like ‘Wow, this would have been good yesterday, when we were actually playing Goliath.’ So I was kind of asking God, like ‘Why are you using this story of David and Goliath after the battle’s already done?’ One thing that stood out to me was, when David went to the river he picked up five stones to kill Goliath. But he killed him with the first one. So, I told the guys, we still got four stones left in our pocket, we’re not done with this giant that we have to overcome. We still got ammo, we still got things left to prove.

Marder: As with Centre, we hadn’t beaten Birmingham Southern and Hendrix this year. So we kind of knew, it’s hard to beat a team three times in a row. We didn’t want to get punked anymore, so we just stepped up, came in with a chip on our shoulder.

Gametime:

McIntosh: Every shot was falling in. We were getting the rebounds, we were playing good defense, and they were blocking shots. I mean Elijah [Hirsh] was just going crazy on defense. McCarty [Forte] was hitting three's. Caleb [Johnson] was doing his thing, and the whole team was just clicking.

Johnson: Across the conference, I mean, we knew that nobody could guard us one-on-one. A lot of them realized that, and that’s why they played us zone a lot. Birmingham Southern ended up making that switch to a zone, and then McCarty ended up hitting three 3’s almost back to back to back. Right after that, they decided they didn’t want to play zone anymore.

Marder: Everybody stepped up to their role.

Johnson: Myles had a run in the second half there, where he went on like a 10-0 run by himself.

Ellis: What stood out to me was just how hungry our guys were that game. We didn't go as deep as we did during the regular season, so guys were playing a lot more minutes. And that Centre game was taxing. One of the questions we had as a coaching staff was, 'Will our guys have the same energy?' And we played with the same energy, and basically got the same result.

 
Final:
Berry 95
Birmingham-Southern 76
 

Marder: [Coach] just came in the locker room, said ‘I have nothing else to say to you guys. You guys know what’s at stake. Rewind, press play.’

McIntosh: It was after that game, especially, where I was like 'Oh my God, we might actually win this thing.'

Johnson: If you’re an athlete, or follow an athlete, you know they’re a really superstitious bunch. So we tried to repeat the exact same thing each night. We ate again at Cheddar’s [the night before]. I wore the same shirt going into the pregame. I know the coaching staff wore the exact same suit and tie every game in that tournament.

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Credit: Berry Athletics

Championship: #8 Berry College Vikings (5-11) vs. #7 Hendrix College Warriors (5-11)

Mixer: We kept the locker room the same before the game as it had been the entire weekend—nobody was overamped or too excited.

Gametime:

McIntosh: When they came out on the floor, I could see a different look in their eyes

Tyler Madison, Berry senior at the game: You could see they were more focused, more confident going into that [championship] game. I don't think that anybody on that team had a doubt that they were going to win that game. And I could feel that Hendrix could feel that too.

McIntosh: From when he came out of the locker room, Caleb was just a man possessed to win a game. I didn't even bother to make eye contact with him. I talked to Alton [McCloud] a little bit, but I made sure I was far away from the coaches and most of the players—that's one of the first rules of being the radio guy. (Laughing) Don't mess with the mojo.

Ellis: Our big guy, Elijah Hirsh, had gotten in foul trouble a couple games. And he did actually get in foul trouble again, during the championship game. Caleb, obviously, stepped up, and Al[ton] McCloud stepped up and McCarty Fort[e] stepped up, Nick Marder stepped up. All those names that have been around for years, you know, showed up at the right time and played great basketball, team basketball.

McIntosh: Hendrix was a team where, we outsized them. But they had some three-point shooters. Preston Smith, an incredible shooter. And we played him well and we shut him down.

Marder: Caleb went unconscious.

Johnson: Mark Summerville kept coming to me after every timeout, he was like ‘Just give me ten more. Just give me ten more.’ And I was like ‘What are you talking about?’ But, yeah. In the moment, I never really realized how many points I had.

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Credit: Berry Athletics

Caleb will end the game with a single-game scoring record 45 points, going 14-for-20 from the field and 15-for-16 from the free throw line. He breaks his own previous record of 34 points, set earlier in the season.

Marder: When you’re on the court, you don’t really realize it, you’re just playing.

Johnson: I didn’t want to settle—I knew I could take any of those guys off the bounce.

Marder: One time, the shot clock was running down, and I just yelled ‘Shoot the ball.’ And he threw it up there with two seconds left and made it. You could tell he was on fire when he just shoots the ball and looks away.

Johnson: Hendrix did a great job of making sure that Elijah [Hirsh] was going to be in foul trouble early, and when he went out, I was like ‘I know I kind of have to pick up the load offensively.’ And Al [McCloud] and Myles [Moore] did a great job of pushing the ball in transition, and those led to easy buckets.

McIntosh: One of the great things to see was, once [Hendrix] shut one part down, the other parts came alive.

Johnson: Those guys just did a great job, the team in its entirety did a great job of finding me in transition, making my job a whole lot easier, where all I had to do was make a layup.

Tyler Madison: [Caleb] He's definitely confident. Every shot he put up you knew it was going in, every time he drove he was either making it or drawing a foul. He really was unconscious.

McIntosh: What he did, that's what seniors do.

Johnson: To be completely honest, it still hasn’t really hit me yet. I can remember going into the last media timeout, and I was sitting there talking to Blake [Jones]. And he was like ‘I’ll see you at halfcourt’. And I was like, [laughing], ‘Don’t talk like that. We still got a while to go.’

McIntosh: They wanted that game. And they wanted it bad. They weren't ready to stop playing yet. I mean, talk about a Cinderella story.

 
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Credit: Berry Athletics
Final:
Berry 88
Hendrix 78
 

Johnson: Literally, the buzzer sounded, I had the ball, I threw it up, just like you see in all the movies. And I just took off sprinting.

Ellis: It was a definite high, I saw Cory did a couple spin moves--[pauses to laugh] Um. Yeah. Cory did a couple flips, everybody else was running around. Just pure joy. Seeing the seniors get together and have a moment.

Johnson: We dumped the cooler on Coach’s head, obviously. We had to do that.

Mixer: It's like seeing your kids win a championship.

Johnson: If you see a picture, you can see like Elijah [Hirsh] jumping twenty feet in the air.

Ellis: Just to see them do it for each other. Do it for past players—we had lot of support, former players that were watching online and came up to the game.

Credit: Berry Athletics

Johnson: I mean. It’s everything we worked for, for the four years.

Marder: And I mean, especially, you know, we had a lot of guys leave in our time here from the team. Specifically from our class. So, it definitely meant a lot to us as seniors who had been there for all four years. Who had been through grit practices, and defensive practices where we didn’t touch a ball, mountain campus runs. All that stuff, year after year, the disappointment from not winning—and then finally, winning it in our last chance to do it; it was just really big.

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Credit: Berry Athletics

Along with a SAA Tournament MVP award, Caleb is named the first U.S. Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) Division III National Player of the Week in Berry's history. Over the course of the three day SAA tournament, he averaged 28.6 points and 6.0 points per game.

Berry discovers that they will travel to Emory University in the first round of the NCAA tournament, a team that edged the Vikings109-103 early in the year.

 

After a hard-fought game, the Berry's magical run ends with a 91-72 loss to the Eagles.

According to the Berry Athletics' website, the Vikings are the first team in SAA history, and one of the few in Division III history, to win the conference tournament as the No. 8 seed.

Tyler Madison: There was no ego.

McIntosh: I think this is going to be the team that you can look back and say 'You know what, they did it. We can too.'

Tyler Madison: No one expected them to win it, so there wasn't pressure. It was like 'Let's just leave it all out there. Why not us? Let's just have fun' kind of mentality.

Mixer: They earned it. That's just the biggest thing. You have to work, you have to earn it, and they did that. It may not always look pretty on paper. It may not always look pretty in practice, either. But ultimately if you do it right, it's going to come around for you.

Ellis: What's their legacy? Champions. This group really came in and changed the culture.

Three weeks after the Vikings make history in the SAA tournament, a small school called the University of Maryland-Baltimore County becomes the first #16 seed in men's Division I NCAA tournament history to upset a #1 seed. Their victory over Virginia sets the college basketball world on fire. When asked, Caleb Johnson says with a smile that there are some parallels between the Retrievers' upset and the Vikings' run.

Johnson: It's basketball. Anything can happen.

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