TWIN FALLS — The waiting game is over for the College of Southern Idaho men’s basketball team.
After losing to Salt Lake Community College in the Scenic West Athletic Conference championship game and missing out on an automatic bid, the Golden Eagles (27-5) earned an at-large bid Monday morning to the NJCAA Division I Tournament in Hutchinson, Kan.
CSI received the No. 10 seed and will face No. 23 Snead State in the first round this coming Monday. This is the second year in a row the Golden Eagles have made the NJCAA Tournament, and it’s their third appearance in four years.
[The full NJCAA Tournament bracket can be found here]
The NJCAA unveiled the tournament bracket on a live video stream Monday morning. CSI coaches, a few players and other staff members gathered in the Golden Eagle Booster Room to watch it, and they had to sit through announcements for 15 teams, plus a commercial break, before they saw their team’s name appear.
One of those 15 teams was Salt Lake CC, which earned the No. 4 seed and a first-round bye after winning the District One championship game on Saturday. That win came a week after the Bruins (30-3) broke the Golden Eagles’ hearts in the SWAC title game.
The Golden Eagles led 86-84 with 13 seconds remaining and Tommy Burton shooting the second of two free throws. He missed the foul shot, the Bruins raced down the court and sophomore guard Bushmen Ebet drained a 3-pointer from the left corner to put SLCC up 87-86 with six seconds left. CSI sophomore Jake Hendricks came up short on his long 3-point attempt at the buzzer, and the Bruins unseated the Golden Eagles for the conference title.
When SLCC was introduced as the No. 4 seed on Monday’s selection show, the broadcast showed a brief video clip. It was Ebet’s game-winner. Once the people in the Golden Eagle Booster Room realized what they were watching, they let out a collective groan.
“There are certain plays in my mind where I think, ‘I’ll never watch that play the rest of my life,’” CSI head coach Jared Phay said after the show. “And they suckered me into it.”
As devastating as that shot felt to the Golden Eagles, they knew that both teams in the SWAC title game had all but sealed spots in the NJCAA Tournament.
The winner of the District One championship gains an automatic bid into the NJCAA Tournament. Non-automatic teams can reach the tournament with an at-large selection, which is made by the NJCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Committee.
The eight at-large bids — which were introduced less than a decade ago, according to Phay — are determined by several criteria, including win-loss record, NJCAA poll ranking, record against ranked teams, strength of conference and record in last 10 games. The same criteria help decide tournament seeding.
The Golden Eagles were ranked No. 9, one spot behind SLCC, in the final NJCAA Division I poll. Their 27-5 record is better than 10 of the teams that earned automatic tournament bids, and they have two wins over tournament teams: SLCC and Western Nebraska CC.
“I liked where we were at,” Phay said, “but it’s still a relief to (say), ‘OK, now we can officially say that we’re in, not that we’re probably in.’”
CSI has a lower seed than SLCC and didn’t receive a first-round bye, but unlike the Bruins, the Golden Eagles will go 16 days between games. That time to rest has been especially important for sophomore big man Roche Grootfaam, who has been battling foot pain.
The Golden Eagles were also the No. 10 seed in last year’s NJCAA Tournament, and their trip ended after one game. Behind 40 points from Ty Lazenby, who now plays for the University of Oklahoma, 23rd-seeded Northern Oklahoma College-Enid ended CSI’s season with a 95-90 win.
Five players on that CSI roster, including Grootfaam, are back this year, and that first-round exit still stings.
“It’s the only thing I think about right now,” Grootfaam said Monday morning. “That’s the feeling I never want to feel again, getting heartbroken in the first game of the tournament.”
On Monday at 3:30 p.m. MT, CSI will face a team with a 25-7 overall record and a 15-2 record in the Alabama Community College Conference. Snead State, located in Boaz, Ala., is about 160 miles from Birmingham, Ala., hometown of CSI sophomore forward Tommy Burton.
Snead State didn’t receive a vote in the final NJCAA Division I poll. Then again, neither did Northern Oklahoma-Enid a year ago.
“Seeding doesn’t really matter right now. Everybody who made it there is good,” Phay said. “We’ve gotta focus in on Snead State.”
Phay is heading into Hutchinson with a one-game-at-a-time approach. Grootfaam described the tournament as “a business trip.”
Both hope this trip lasts much longer than last year’s.
“We’re trying to go win it,” Grootfaam said. “We want our redemption.”
Alex Valentine contributed to this story.