03/22/05 — Mount Olive hoops team arrives at Elite Eight

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Mount Olive hoops team arrives at Elite Eight

Published in Sports on March 22, 2005 2:17 PM

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- Think college basketball in the state of North Carolina. Duke, Wake Forest and the University of North Carolina certainly come to mind, as three of the nation's powerhouse men's basketball programs.

But 95 miles south of Tobacco Road, which links Durham (Duke) and Chapel Hill (UNC), there's a pretty good basketball team, too.

The small town of Mount Olive (population 4,500), located in the heart of Atlantic Coast Conference country, is excited these days about the NCAA Division II tournament. Mount Olive College is making its first appearance in the Elite Eight, starting Wednesday in Ralph Engelstad Arena. Prior to last season, Mount Olive had never even made the NCAA tournament.

"Our faculty, staff and students are excited about the opportunity," Mount Olive athletics director Mac Cassell said. "We're looking forward to it. It's going to be a first-class event."

Mount Olive is the smallest school in the Elite Eight. It has just 600 students on its main campus. That's in contrast to some other Elite Eight teams. Cal Poly-Pomona, for one, has more than 17,000 students.

The small school makes for a tight-knit campus, coach Bill Clingan said.

"They're really excited and happy for us to be going where we are going," Clingan said. "There's a lot of enthusiasm around campus, and there are a lot of well-wishers. Everybody in the town is very excited."

Mount Olive will gladly welcome any basketball-hungry fans in the state who want to jump on the bandwagon, too.

"The state is a great place for basketball," Cassell said. "We have a lot of great basketball. Everybody has an appreciation for ACC basketball, and we appreciate it, too. But why can't we be good, too?"

Clingan added, "Our philosophy is that if you're rooting for Duke, North Carolina or Wake Forest, that's fine. But root for us, too. We have a lot of dual fans."

The Trojans typically play in front of a couple hundred people. In their final home game, the Trojans drew 253.

But they have played in front of large crowds. In November, 14,457 fans watched Mount Olive take on homestanding North Carolina.

"Our guys will not be intimidated by a bigger arena or a larger crowd," Clingan said.

They won't be intimidated by any opponent, either. The Tar Heels only outscored Mount Olive by four points in the second half with their starters playing nearly the whole way. The final score: North Carolina 100, Mount Olive 69.

"We played them probably as tough as any (Division II) school is capable of playing them," Clingan said. "Even though they beat us by a substantial margin, it gave us confidence from that point on."

Mount Olive (29-4) has set the school mark for most wins in a season. The previous record was 23.

The Trojans topped Salem International 80-73 in a regional championship to earn a trip to Grand Forks. The school's Web site proudly proclaims, "Put on your parkas and skates - the Trojans are going ice dancing!"

"North Dakota is going to be a new experience," Cassell explained. "Cold (in North Carolina) is like 32 degrees."

While the Trojans are excited to be in the Elite Eight, they feel more work is ahead. They have balanced scoring, with five players averaging double figures. Elton Coffield leads the way, averaging 17.8 points per game.

Sharome Holloway, who returned from an injury that cost him the final month last season, averages 11.8 points.

"At the time, I didn't understand why (the injury) happened," Holloway said. "Now I realize that everything happens for a reason. Now I have an even greater appreciation for getting to play."

Holloway and his team will have an extra appreciation for playing in the Elite Eight.

"We have great chemistry," Clingan said. "We don't worry about one player having to do all the scoring. We're going to have to play our best basketball. Everyone is going to have to play their best. Every team is capable of winning it."

Whether the Trojans win it or not, it's a season the small town of Mount Olive won't soon forget.

"We're very appreciative for the opportunity," Clingan said.