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Bison's first trip to NCAA Division II Tournament spoiled by COVID-19

Brian Johnson
Rashad Lewis in action during the 2019-20 season.

Rashad Lewis, Dishon Lowery and Caleb Norris didn't want to see the season end like it did.

The senior trio on the Oklahoma Baptist University men's basketball team was geared up for the Bison's showdown with the top-ranked team in the nation Northwest Missouri State in the NCAA Central Region Quarterfinals, but COVID-19 or the coronavirus pandemic settled in.

“It was bummer way to end the season,” Lewis said.

For Lowery, the cancellation wasn't a total shock, but it was indeed a disappointment.

“We knew there wouldn't be fans there. But I still would have been satisfied to play the No. 1 team in the country.” said Lowery. “It was kind of a disappointment to not play that game.”

The 22-9 Bison were on somewhat of a roll going into nationals, though they fell to Henderson State in the Great American Conference Tournament championship game in their final outing. OBU had won 8 of 10 games before the season was prematurely ended. This Bison team was making history by being the first in school history to compete in the Division II Tournament.

It was a roller coaster type of day when the official announcement was made that OBU had landed an at-large berth to the tournament, according to Norris.

“That day was a roller coaster of emotions. We were disappointed with the loss in the (GAC) finals and we were wondering, on the drive home, if we made it,” Norris said. “That night our name came up (on the bracket selection show) and we were excited. Our goal was to win a conference championship and we came close.”

For Lewis, he was pleased that the Bison were able to build on last year's success.

“After last year, we knew this season could be pretty special,” said Lewis. “With coach Eaker being in his second year and all of us together for a second year, we had everybody coming back and everybody on board.”

Lewis praised the efforts of Eaker and his coaching staff for setting the stage for OBU's success.

“We knew what our goals were before the season. Coach Eaker coached us like we wanted to get to the national tournament,” Lewis said. “Our schedule prepared us. We played two MIAA (Midwestern Intercollegiate Athletic Association) teams (both victories) and we beat (then No. 24) Tarleton State.”

Lewis, who averaged 12.4 points, 4.2 assists, 3.6 rebounds and 1.2 steals, can look back on the 2019-20 season with a sense of accomplishment.

“It was the first time we made it to the NCAA Tournament and first time we won at least 11 home games (since joining Division II). We accomplished so much together,” said Lewis.

The 5-foot, 9-inch guard just completed his online work toward a master's degree in intercultural studies and is looking into playing professional basketball and possibly coaching.

Lowery, who averaged 10.2 points and 7.7 rebounds this past year, always took in the murals of former Bison stars which consume the hallways surrounding the OBU locker room and coaches' offices in the Noble Complex.

“I felt that it was important for me to personally leave a mark,” Lowery said. “Being a part of this team, the challenges, being in the race and the day-to-day grind has been great. We made history. Hopefully, this (success) is something at Oklahoma Baptist that will last for many years.”

Knowing roles and coming together as a team is something Lowery attributed to the success of the 2019-20 Bison squad.

“We had a good team last year, but the difference this year was that everyone understood their capabilities and to not sell ourselves short,” said Lowery. “Everyone was able to contribute and we had a bunch of guys that just did their job.”

Another successful trait of the Bison this season was their ability to bounce back from a loss. OBU lost only two games in a row once this season and rebounded from a loss each time at all other points during the season.

“Coach emphasized short memories, learning from our mistakes and correcting them,” Lowery said.

Lowery, from St. Louis, Missouri, is expected to obtain his degree in business administration/marketing management this spring and would like to continue playing in the professional ranks.

Norris, from Coweta, already has his bachelor's degree in business management and is on pace to receive his master's degree in business administration in December.

“This was an extremely close-knit group which I was thankful to be a part of,” Norris said. “The team was like that all season long, growing together and struggling together. It was something special.”

Eaker had a positive take on the whole situation, particularly the way the season played out and the huge late-season run which gave the Bison the opportunity to get a national tournament berth.

“Something you not be able to take away from them is seeing their name pop up on the board (during the selection show) and to see that they would play the No. 1 team in the nation,” Eaker said. “I remember when we were traveling back and we had dinner. We made it a celebration and seemed to move past it (the disappointment) quickly. At least we got to play a season. Many spring sports like baseball, softball and others only got to play a few games.”

The month of February was certainly pivotal to OBU's success, according to Eaker.

“They didn't need gratification from the coaches. They had self-gratification for themselves and the way the season played out,” said Eaker. “I was proud of the team and the way they were proud of each other. We not only won a lot of games, but won a lot in dramatic fashion. We felt like we were in postseason play all of February. You could tell in every game and every shootaround we were in postseason mode for the full month. The only disappointment is that we didn't win the (GAC) championship game.”

Eaker says that he felt that the OBU community rallied behind the Bison as they achieved several firsts in being ranked regionally for the first time, playing in the conference tournament title game for the first time, earning an NCAA Division II berth and achieving a No. 23 national ranking by the Massey Poll.

“It's been a great two years building this program,” Eaker said.