NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The story of Morehead State’s first appearance in the NCAA Tournament in 25 years is one of many things. Where to start is hard enough, especially after a game like the one that put them into the field of 65 – a double-overtime thriller that had its share of heart-stopping moments.
For one, it’s the story of a program that had not even been to the Ohio Valley Conference championship game in 25 years, let alone won it. That time, they won it for the second year in a row under Wayne Martin. In the time since that happened, there were some lean years along the way, with a few glimmers of hope sprinkled in. They had players like Erik Brown and Ricky Minard, who had the potential to get them back, but Brown transferred to Louisville after leading all freshmen nationally in scoring and Minard just never quite had enough help.
One person who played during that long drought was Donnie Tyndall, now the head coach. Tyndall played there from 1990-93, with the team winning two OVC Tournament games but not getting to the final. After he started cutting down the net, he looked to his mother in the crowd, and she soon came onto the court to join him and the team. Not surprisingly, this win has more personal significance for him, and he made sure his team understood it.
“I told them, this is a lot more than the coach at Morehead State or the current 12 players at Morehead State,” said the third-year head coach. “This is for all the people, all the administrators, all the fans that for 25 years have pulled for the Eagles through some good times and some bad times. We’re fortunate enough to have the opportunity to play in a game of this magnitude, and so they weren’t only doing that for themselves, their teammates and our staff, but for all those people. There were several former players back here tonight that I had a chance to see that never had an opportunity to play in this game, me included.”
This is also a story of perseverance, both personal and team. The Eagles didn’t start or finish the regular season strong, losing the first six games and finishing the regular season with four straight losses. Tyndall never lost confidence in this team, even when the players felt a little down after the 0-6 start. He saw them getting better, and got them to believe they could keep it up.
Of the last four games in the regular season, none of them were to bad teams and three came on the road. They were in position to possibly win the regular season title, but wound up in fourth place and still felt they could come out of Nashville with a conference title. After taking care of Eastern Kentucky in the quarterfinals, they took care of the top seed on Friday night before winning on Saturday.
Then we go to the winning shot in the second overtime. It was made by Steve Peterson, a freshman from Columbus, Georgia who plays less than 11 minutes per game. But long before this, it was far from a certainty that Peterson would even be on the roster this month, let alone play key minutes and make a shot that people will be talking about for a while. Tyndall said that last August, Peterson could barely make it through a 40-minute individual instruction workout. Then when practice came, he wasn’t much better.
It got to the point where Tyndall and assistant coach Chris Moore, who had a large hand in his recruitment, had to spend time with Peterson to go over if this situation could work. They saw that, in Tyndall’s words, he was just “surviving” practice and not enjoying the experience at all. It took time, as he didn’t play much early, but he finally got it together and became part of the team in the sense that their identity is as a tough, hard-nosed team. When Demonte Harper fouled out near the end of the first overtime, Peterson came in the rest of the way.
“To make that improvement and stay receptive to coaching and jump up and make a shot in the biggest game in Morehead basketball in 25 years is just a tribute to him,” said Tyndall.
This is also the story of how Tyndall has taken this program to the NCAA Tournament in three years. He admits that it’s ahead of schedule, as he felt it would be about 4-5 years before he got it to the point where they would have this chance. But in three years, he’s put together a team with a clear identity as one that’s tough, defends and rebounds. At the core of it are two key players who joined the team last year, senior Leon Buchanan and sophomore Kenneth Faried.
Faried is perhaps the best story here and a big reason they have made it to the NCAA Tournament. The native of Newark, N.J. isn’t someone you might expect to play college ball at a small school in Kentucky. Tyndall was tied into his travel team coach and took a chance on him. Faried committed in February of his senior year, but it wasn’t a given he would qualify academically. It was thought that he was going to do a prep year, and if that happened he would surely have had more offers from schools at a higher level from that and another year of playing with the powerful Playaz program in the spring and summer. Faried finished strong, then did well enough on his SAT in June of that year to enroll.
No one was soaking in the experience more than Faried, the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year and a first team All-OVC selection. He was doing a couple of victory dances on the court, directed the net cutting by a couple of teammates, laid down in front of everyone in a team picture with the championship trophy, and ran into the stands to enjoy the moment with his mother and the Morehead State faithful, including the 20 or so family and friends that Harper, a hometown kid, had in the crowd.
“It feels amazing,” said Faried, the tournament MVP. “Words can’t explain it, because you go through so much in life. As a kid, you shoot basketballs in the backyard, play street ball with your friends. Just to have this moment, this one opportunity, to win a championship, to win a ring. My mother, I always dedicate every game to her, win or lose, and she was there to see it. It’s just overwhelming. I’m just so happy.”
Tyndall said what you saw of Faried, whose mother made the trip from New Jersey, is a pretty good representation of who he is.
“He’s a fun-loving, good-natured kid,” said Tyndall. “If you came to a home game, you would see that he’s the guy who, when he subs out of the game, is on his feet raising his arms trying to get everyone excited and into the game. He’s just an unselfish young man. If you watch him around my daughters, they love him, he spends time with him. He’s just a good person, and a lot of that is attributed to his mom, who is a tough, hard-nosed lady. If any of you in the room think I’m tough and hard-nosed, his momma doesn’t play!”
It’s also the story of Harper, who hails from Nashville and is on track to one day be an all-OVC guard. Here’s a young man who never even got to the championship game in high school, so even if Saturday night’s game wasn’t in front of so many family and friends, the sophomore who had a large hand in a key second-half run would have an unforgettable occasion.
“This is one of the best moments ever,” Harper said. “What better way to win in front of my family, my hometown, where I’ve been my whole life. To go to college and play to win an OVC championship game, there’s no better feeling.”
Indeed, there’s no better feeling for many connected to Morehead State right about now. The story of this win, in a game for the ages, is the story of many things. Most of all, it’s the story of the feelings that come out in March when a team gets to the NCAA Tournament, and more so when it’s the first time in a quarter of a century.