SALEM, Va. — Six words have guided the Augustana basketball team to the NCAA Division III Final Four and a spot in tonight’s national semifinal game.
“Why not us? Why not now?’’
Those words greeted the Vikings at their first team meeting last fall, covering the front of notebooks distributed to every player.
They were designed to provoke thought and challenge players in a program that started the season looking to replace its top six scorers and rebounders from a 29-2 team.
“I think it made us all think. This didn’t have to be a rebuilding year. It could just be more of the same, Augie winning basketball games and having success,’’ forward Jacob Johnston said. “It was up to us to put in the work, work together and make it happen.’’
A 23-8 record, a share of the regular-season championship in the College Conference of Illinois & Wisconsin and the Vikings’ second Final Four appearance in three seasons.
“The more we’ve won, the more we’ve thought, ‘Why not us? Why not now?’ Guys bought into making that happen,’’ guard Chrishawn Orange said. “The commitment, it’s been there going back to last summer, but it still has to come together when the season arrives.’’
Once the Vikings earned postseason victories over St. Thomas and Wisconsin-Whitewater programs which have combined to win four of the last six Division III national titles, those six words have hit home even more.
“The last couple weeks, it’s something we’ve talked about a lot,’’ guard Dylan Sortillo said. “Why not us? Why not now? We have a great opportunity in front of us.’’
That opportunity arrives at 6:30 p.m. today when the Vikings meet a Williams team which shares Augustana’s overall record and like the Vikings has only two seniors on its roster and just one in its lineup.
Ephs coach Kevin App sees many of the same traits in Augustana he sees in his own team.
“They seem to have somebody different step up in every game, or even in every half, and make a difference and that’s been our team, too,’’ App said. “We felt like we had a chance to compete, to be a decent team this year, but it all has to come together.’’
Vikings coach Grey Giovanine understands.
“We have five freshmen and sophomores in our top seven in scoring right now, guys who have really risen up and made the most of the opportunities that they have had this season,’’ Giovanine said.
“I don’t think a lot of people expected our team to be in this position right now, but the guys on the team, their expectations of playing at a high level have been constant. The guys that came before them, they gave them a good blueprint to follow.’’
Williams will challenge Augustana with size and a 3-point touch that averages 9.6 baskets per game from behind the arc.
Giovanine said that puts a premium on perimeter play and an extended defensive effort.
“If you let them get to you down low, they’ll pound you there,’’ Giovanine said. “This one has to be won between the keys.’’
With those six words first introduced last fall in the back of their minds, the Vikings are ready for their next challenge.
“I think we’re ready. Everything we’ve done the last few weeks, it has led us to this point,’’ Sortillo said. “It’s time to go.’’