Twenty-nine seconds stood between Lipscomb and its first NCAA Tournament.
Seven years later, the Bisons are three games away, as always is the case.
They nearly made the Big Dance in 2006 when James Poindexter drained a go-ahead 3-pointer with 29 seconds left in the championship game of the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament. But Belmont’s Justin Hare immediately responded with a three-point play that tied the game with 20 seconds left. Hare scored 10 more points in overtime and led the Bruins to a 74-69 win and the first of their five NCAA appearances.
Since then, Lipscomb has not advanced past the conference tournament semifinals. In each of the past three seasons it has lost in the first round.
For teams from the Atlantic Sun and other “one-bid leagues,” what happens in the one weekend of the conference tournament often outweighs the preceding months of regular season play.
“One-bid leagues are really tough to totally judge your programs on going to the [NCAA] Tournament,” Lipscomb athletics director Philip Hutcheson said. “Somebody gets the flu at the wrong time, and the whole season goes down the drain. There are a lot of factors that go on throughout the season that the wrong thing happens at the wrong time can keep you from making the tournament. … That is a challenge, so you do try to look at how programs do throughout the year and throughout the years. “
Lipscomb gets its chance to earn the Atlantic Sun’s automatic bid when the 2013 tournament begins Wednesday in Macon, Ga.
Prior to last weekend, the Bisons (11-16, 6-10) were in ninth place in the 10-team league but already had clinched a spot in the eight-team field because Northern Kentucky, which was tied for seventh, is ineligible to participate as it continues its transition from Division II.
In his 14th season at Lipscomb, Scott Sanderson is the dean of A-Sun coaches. Since he took over for legendary coach Don Meyer in 1999, he has guided the Bisons from NAIA to NCAA Division I. In his first year, he led the Bisons to a 34-4 record and the NAIA Elite Eight. The Bisons also have won two A-Sun regular-season titles (2006 and 2010) and made the program’s only Division I postseason tournament — the NIT in 2006.
Recently, though, they have struggled.
Lipscomb was the conference tournament’s top seed in 2010, but a talented, senior-laden squad, headlined by the duo of Adnan Hodzic and Josh Slater, was upset by No. 8 seed Kennesaw State in the first round. Last year, the Bisons trudged through a 13-18 season. To make matters worse, four players were dismissed, and promising freshman point guard Zavion Williams transferred to Austin Peay.
This year, Lipscomb is enduring growing pains with seven freshmen and four sophomores and only one senior.
Sanderson, however, feels positive about the future.
“I can easily say in 29 years of coaching I probably have enjoyed coaching this team more than any team I’ve coached, just because of their willingness to learn and their willingness to get better,” he said. “Most kids, they focus on the end results. The end result is important, but the process is more important. If we’ll continue to work hard and practice and do the things we need to do in practice, we will get the results we want.”
They hope that soon includes a trip to the NCAA Tournament.
While often compared with neighborhood rival Belmont, Lipscomb actually is on par with the majority of recent NCAA Division I newcomers.
The Bisons were one of nine programs that became full-fledged NCAA Division I members in 2000. Only three of those schools have reached the NCAA Tournament.
Since 1997, starting with Belmont, 43 schools have started Division I programs. Only 12 have reached the NCAA Tournament. Just Portland State (two), Albany (two), Oakland (three) and Belmont (five) have made multiple trips. And Norfolk State, which joined in 1998, is the only team to win a game in the NCAA Tournament outside of the opening round or “play-in” game. The 15th-seeded Spartans upset
Missouri in the first round last year.
All of those teams play in smaller, mid-major conferences, which are usually afforded just one NCAA Tournament bid — to the winner of the league’s tournament.
“People don’t understand how difficult it is in a one-bid league to get into the tournament,” Sanderson said. “At our level, if you have one bad game in March, you’re not going anywhere. People don’t understand how hard it is at our level to get to the NCAA Tournament. It is really, really hard to do that. I don’t know if ‘surprised’ is the right word, but it is just very, very difficult.”