Although it ended earlier than everyone had hoped, the Newberry College men's basketball team put together a season to remember in 2008-09. The remarkable campaign gives Newberry fans plenty to look back on and look forward to.
Just a look at the numbers can prove why this season was one of the most special ones in program history. After a long period of poor results, the team showed early signs of its potential by starting off the regular season with seven straight wins. By the time the conference season began in earnest in January, the team had racked up a 10-2 record after three straight seasons of recording only 12 wins.
By the time it was all said and done, the scarlet and gray amassed 21 wins to only eight losses. That proved to be the team's best record since joining Division II in the early 1990s, as well as the best since 1981-82. For historical perspective, that team was the last team to reach the 20-win plateau and the first to play in Eleazer Arena.
The team's success in South Atlantic Conference play was what truly set this season apart though. After a loss to Wingate in December, Newberry won three of the first four SAC contests in January. The scarlet and gray were in the top half of the very tight SAC standings for nearly the entire season.
An emphatic 78-68 win at home over 11th-ranked Catawba College was a distinct sign to Newberry fans that this year's team was one that could challenge for a SAC title - something that had never been done by a Newberry squad.
A week later the team received great news from the NCAA. On January 29, it was announced that Newberry was ranked ninth in the Southeast Region rankings. It was the first time Newberry had ever appeared in the regional rankings, and a sure sign that the scarlet and gray were on the right path towards their first-ever NCAA postseason appearance.
A pair of losses at home two weeks later proved to be a tough obstacle to overcome, but the Newberry men showed great resiliency, winning four of the final five games of the regular season. That run included crucial road wins over Catawba and Lincoln Memorial. The season finale over LMU was the 10th win in conference play, establishing yet another program best.
That win not only gave Newberry 20 regular season wins and 10 SAC victories, but most importantly gave them the second seed in the Food Lion South Atlantic Conference Tournament. It was only the second time Newberry had finished in the top half in league play and earned the scarlet and gray the right to host men's postseason play for the first time in Eleazer Arena.
On top of all of that, Newberry never dropped below ninth in the regional rankings, consistently putting Newberry into discussion for inclusion to the NCAA field of 64. The team also led the entirety of Division II in blocked shots throughout the season.
"This was a historic season in every way," said head coach Jeremy Luther. "To win 21 games, finish second in the SAC, beat two nationally ranked opponents and be regionally ranked for the entire year is something our kids need to be proud of. I am so proud of our team and how hard they fought and bought in."
On March 4, second-seeded Newberry turned in a gutty performance in front of one of the best crowds in recent memory, holding off seventh-seeded Mars Hill, 107-103 in overtime, to advance to the SAC Tournament semifinals for the first time in five years.
First team All-SAC and second team all-region honoree Clemente Martin turned in the performance of his career, netting a career-high 32 points to help push Newberry to the win. A Jesse Wheeler buzzer-beating three-pointer sent the game into overtime and Newberry connected on 11-of-12 free throw attempts in the OT to head back to Hickory.
However, a loss to third-seeded Tusculum in the conference tournament semifinals brought an abrupt end to the momentous season. Newberry had been ranked seventh regionally entering the week, but the loss to Tusculum and Catawba's win in the championship game left Newberry in the ninth spot, and out of the NCAA Tournament.
But despite the disappointing end to the season, the majority of the year gives Newberry fans plenty to look forward to. The squad loses seniors Matt Alexander, Clemente Martin, Ty Overmyer and Vytautas Valiulis, but returns plenty of up and coming talent.
"At the end of last season I knew we had a chance to be good, as long as each player took we took the necessary steps to improve as a player and as a team," Luther said. "Off the floor we were able to sign some kids that fit our needs and the returnees put in a lot of hard work in the spring, summer and fall.
"The 2008-09 team has laid a great foundation for things to come. I am very excited about the direction of this program and the 2009-10 season. We have a great deal of talent returning and are in the mix with some talented recruits to add to an already talented team," Luther added.
Returning to the mix next year are three post players who did plenty of damage this season. Brett Goodwell, Jesse Wheeler and Kendrick Johnson each bring their talents to the hardwood and 2007-08 starter Stephane Bakinde returns to the floor after sitting out due to injury. At the guard position, sharpshooter Grant Domsic will look to make an impact as a starter after two seasons playing primarily in a reserve role, while Charles Ndoloum and Will Dawkins will look to make larger contributions to the team. Redshirts Ryan Barnes, Aaron Edwards and Coleman Young will join the active squad and the 2009 signing class will also be expected to make great contributions to the team.
With the 2008-09 season in the books, the same principles will be in place as Newberry looks to succeed on an even greater scale in 2009-10. "Our team has tasted success and knows what it takes to win now," Luther said. "The keys to being even better next season will come as we manage the success from this season and continue to build on that. The 2009-10 team will have come into fall with a hunger to excel."