When the Lewis-Clark State men’s basketball team emerged from the locker room after its loss in the NAIA championship game March 23, coach Austin Johnson gathered the several freshmen on his roster and delivered a message.
“If this isn’t the biggest motivator for you to get better and invest at an even deeper level into your game and your career, then I don’t know what is,” he told them, according to the coach.
He could have said the same to his sophomores and juniors, because he’s probably going to lose a bunch of seniors. He’ll need everyone to raise their games if the Warriors are going to maintain their excellence of recent seasons.
Johnson knows one thing about next year’s team. It will be young.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the NAIA is allowing 2020-21 seniors to play again next year. To an unusual degree, the Warriors were buoyed this year by six seniors, but it appears just one, Khalil Stevenson, will exploit the option to come back.
Johnson isn’t surprised. One of the six, Hodges Bailey, is married. Two others, Lewiston’s Trystan Bradley and Travis Yenor, are planning their own weddings this summer. Most of the seniors will graduate in a few weeks and, in fact, Bailey and Yenor delayed their graduation so they could play this season.
“I’ve talked to a few coaches and they say, ‘Oh, yeah, we’ve got five seniors and they’re all coming back,’” Johnson said. “But I guarantee you, none of those five have probably graduated. They’re probably all coming back so they can finish their degrees. Which is good. But our situation is unique because, in this senior group, we have so many good students.”
The Warriors likely will bid farewell to their top four scorers, including point guard extraordinaire Damek Mitchell (15.0 points), who on Thursday was named NAIA All-American by a national coaches association. Also moving on are local heroes Bradley (15.9 points) and Clarkston’s Jake Albright (7.8 points), in addition to Bailey (13.1 points) and Yenor (10.3 points).
Those five players provided 62 of the 85 points the Warriors averaged per game and, together with Stevenson, were the heart and soul of a 22-2 team that advanced to the national title game in Kansas City, Mo., losing 74-68 to Shawnee State.
Asked to name the defining traits of the team, Johnson said “togetherness and toughness.”
“There are tangible things like, we shot it well and we had skilled bigs,” he said, alluding to the Warriors’ 49-percent marksmanship and efficient front-liners like Bradley and Albright. “And you have Damek Mitchell, who’s an unbelievable point guard. But ultimately it’s the intangibles, the toughness and the togetherness. That’s something we’ve preached since I got here.”
The Warriors’ 2019-20 team was led by the same players and showed the same qualities, leaving Johnson wondering what would have happened if the pandemic hadn’t forced the cancellation of the NAIA tournament that year. In any case, thanks largely to this year’s seniors, Johnson will enter his fourth season at LCSC with an 81-12 record.
Stevenson’s decision to stay put will immeasurably ease the coach’s task next year. The hard-driving guard averaged only 8.2 points this year but started every game, shot 50 percent and “was tremendous down the stretch,” the coach said.
Also of help will be junior swingman Nate Fromm (7.4 points, 53.2 FG percent) and freshman guards Oreon Courtney (6.9 points, 71.8 FG percent) and Silas Bennion (3.1 points, 51.0 FG percent).
But no one else played much in meaningful situations. The Warriors’ vast experience worked against the development of their youth. That’s why Johnson told his freshmen to savor the national tournament and draw incentive from the near-miss quest for the school’s first national title.
The rookies on hand included the youngest son of former NBA great John Stockton, guard Sam Stockton, whom Johnson had planned to redshirt until the NAIA ruled that nobody in this pandemic-shaken season would lose eligibility. The same was true of Colton Spencer and Will Abram. They all traveled with the team and soaked up the experience.
In the offseason, Johnson plans to find one more guard and a few front-liners. Although recruiting is complicated at the NAIA level, the coach’s pitch will be sweetened by the Warriors’ runner-up showing at the national tournament.
“We’re trying to recruit kids that are being recruited by Division I schools,” Johnson said. “Does that kid want to fulfill that lifelong dream of playing at the Division I level? Those are things that come into play.
“But having a chance to win a national championship — obviously that resonates. That’s a conversation-starter for anybody.”
MORE KUDOS FOR MITCHELL — The Warriors learned Mitchell was one of 12 honorees on the NAIA All-America team as chosen by the National Association of Basketball Coaches.
“Most prestigious All-American team you can get named to,” Johnson said.
Earlier, Mitchell was named first-team All-America by the NAIA.
Grummert may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (208) 848-2290.