03/03/12 — Mount Olive deserves NCAA tournament bid

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Mount Olive deserves NCAA tournament bid

By Rudy Coggins
Published in Sports on March 3, 2012 11:07 PM

Despite the outcome of this afternoon's Conference Carolinas championship game at Kornegay Arena, it's more than obvious that Mount Olive College isn't a bubble team for the NCAA Division II men's basketball tournament.

In fact, the Trojans should be shoe-in.

A combined three victories against Southeast Region foes King (Tenn.) College and Queens University-Charlotte undoubtedly boosted Mount Olive's RPI within the last week. The Trojans are ranked No. 6 in the latest region poll, one spot behind King, which won the Conference Carolinas West Division championship.

Queens claimed the East Division title, but its NCAA tournament hopes probably burst with a semifinal-round loss to Barton in the conference tournament Saturday evening.

Mount Olive (21-7 overall) and Barton tip off at 2 p.m. with the automatic qualifying bid to the Southeast Regional on the line. A Bulldog victory muddles the playoff picture even further and puts more pressure on the selection committee to either award two at-large bids to Conference Carolinas ... or leave one team home.

A Trojan win makes it a moot point because MOC has done its job already.

Head coach Joey Higginbotham always assembles a challenging non-conference schedule against quality in-region programs. The selection committee considers a number of criteria, including strength of schedule and in-region record, that factors into awarding bids at tournament time. Mount Olive has undoubtedly constructed a solid "body of work" that shouldn't get ignored by the committee.

The Trojans have 19 in-region victories and put their season-high, seven-game win streak on the line against Barton.

"I feel like our strength of schedule is really good and we have the advantage over a lot of teams in our conference because of that," said senior forward Craig Hayes, who was named the Conference Carolinas player-of-the-year.

"We went on the road and played a lot of tough teams, played them close and got some wins, and lost a couple of tough ones. It's a tough 21 wins, I can tell you that."

The Trojans were 7-1 in mid-December after a home triumph over Peach Belt member UNC Pembroke. The team lost five of their next six games, including a heart-breaking two-point loss at Barton in mid-January.

The bitter defeat sparked MOC to 13 wins in their next 14 outings.

"Those losses really helped us come together," said senior point guard Derek Staton, who has started all 28 games this season. "Those were games we knew we had and should have won. We never gave up on ourselves, coach (Higginbotham) never gave up on us and we just came together (as a team).

"We got stronger on and off the court."

Mount Olive is seeking its seventh NCAA tournament bid in program history and second during Higginbotham's tenure as head coach. The Trojans have won 25 of 49 meetings against Barton since the mid-1990s.