by Scott Goode, sports information director
The Harding-Henderson State matchup has been more than just a game in recent seasons. For several years, the Bisons and Reddies have met in the last regular-season Gulf South Conference game, and something is always on the line — a trip to the conference tournament or possibly a GSC West Division championship. The games are always close, heated contests, and in Searcy, the games are always played before a packed house at Rhodes. In fact, three of the top 10 highest-attended games in GSC history have featured these two teams playing in Searcy.
This year's game would have continued the tradition. But when a call came in to the Sports Information Office in late October, the meeting took on a whole new significance. Chris Fitzpatrick, NCAA's director of broadcasting, called early one morning to let me know that the Feb. 23 game would be one of six NCAA Division II games broadcast nationally on College Sports Television, a subsidiary of CBS Sports, which can be seen in more than 20 million homes nationwide.
The phone call made my heart beat faster. The Bison football team had been featured on five regionally broadcast games, but no University team in any sport had ever played before a national audience. Immediately after hanging up the phone, I went to athletic director Greg Harnden's office to break the news. Head basketball coach Jeff Morgan was already there as I passed on the announcement from the NCAA. Morgan's first comment was, "Now we've got to win some games to make that game mean something."
The team did just that. The Bisons stayed at or near the top of the GSC West Division throughout their early conference schedule and entered the game with a chance at the West Division title.
Preparations for the game began almost immediately as we worked on poster and pocket schedules and media guides. Tipoff for the game was set for 11 a.m., instead of the originally scheduled 7:30 p.m., so we scrambled to get the correct time on everything we were ordering.
The game was the fifth of six NCAA Division II games on the CSTV package. Before the first of those six games, the University's athletics administration participated in a conference call with television personnel to learn how to prepare the campus.
Simultaneously, Winnercomm, the game's production company, dispatched site coordinator David Jones to Searcy to check out Rhodes Field House. Jones met with TV 16 director Bob Ritchie and me. We decided to place the primary game cameras facing the Rhodes Rowdies. Typically, the cameras face the scorer's table and team benches, but at Rhodes, the Rowdies are a large part of the show.
As the day of the game neared, Liz Howell, director of alumni relations, began a two-pronged publicity attack. Howell hosted several luncheons each Monday to help plan on-campus events surrounding the game. Those meetings led to the Student Activities Committee hosting a pep rally the night before the game that included a slam-dunk contest by several members of the basketball team.
Howell also began sending mass e-mails to alumni, parents and friends across the country, announcing the game time and letting them know what channel the game would be on in their area.
The night before the game, the television staff began arriving from numerous points around the country and checked into their rooms at Heritage Inn. The crew, which included, among others, Fitzpatrick; Justin Kutcher, play-by-play announcer; Vince Curran, color commentator; and Jeff Strauss, director, dined at Doc's Grill across from campus. After the meal, they attended the pep rally and shot footage of Rowdies to use the next day.
Feb. 23 began very early for those involved in the telecast. The production truck arrived behind Rhodes Field House at 4 a.m. Scott Hannigan, a senior from Horatio, Ark., met the truck and spent the seven hours until game time running errands for producer Jack Coffey.
Almost immediately, a crew of about 20 began transforming Rhodes into a television-ready arena. By 7 a.m., cameras were in place, miles of cable snaked through the rafters, and the crew relaxed and enjoyed a breakfast buffet provided by Aramark.
Rhodes' doors opened to the public at 9:45 a.m., and streams of Rowdies with painted faces began filling the seats. Long before tipoff, the arena was packed, and the noise was deafening.
At 10:30 a.m., the television lights came on, and the Bisons hit the court. The Harding-Henderson State rivalry was on display for the entire nation to see, and the Bisons put on a show. Five different Bisons scored 10 or more points. Senior Matt Hall led the team with 18, and freshman Kevin Brown had two highlight-reel dunks. The team rolled to a 72-59 victory.
Fitzpatrick said this about the game: "The administration, fans, alumni and community of Searcy, Ark., and Harding University provided an unbelievable atmosphere for the NCAA Division II Basketball Game of the Week when they hosted Henderson State on Feb. 23. We expected a great crowd but were very pleased when we realized that the game was at full capacity, especially with a morning start time. The collective efforts of the two institutions and the Gulf South Conference contributed greatly to the atmosphere. NCAA Productions and CBS College Sports are simply grateful to be a part of the NCAA Division II initiative, which allows the NCAA to televise and showcase Division II to the nation each week."
Once again, it proved to be more than a game.
The men's basketball team earned its second NCAA Division II Tournament appearance. The Bisons, the No. 6 seed in the South Region, lost 86-77 to No. 3 University of Tampa during the first round in Lakeland, Fla. The team's first trip to the tournament came in 2003.
The team finished the season with an 18-13 overall record. A 10-4 conference mark gave the Bisons a tie for the Gulf South Conference West Division Championship, the first men's basketball conference title since the reinstatement of basketball in 1957-58. The Bisons also advanced to their first GSC Tournament Championship Game before falling 93-89 to Christian Brothers University.
Senior forward Matt Hall led the Bisons in scoring with 21.7 points per game. He earned his third GSC West Division Player of the Year Award and joined Butch Gardner as only the second Bison basketball player to have his jersey retired. Sophomore guard Trent Morgan earned Second-Team All-GSC honors.
The women's basketball team took its second-straight trip to the Gulf South Conference Tournament.
The team went 8-6 in the GSC West Division and earned the third seed in the conference tournament. The Lady Bisons fell 65-58 to Valdosta State University in the first round and just missed a berth in the NCAA II Tournament. They finished 18-10 overall.
Sophomore Stacey Owens led the team in scoring with 13.7 points per game and was second on the boards with 6.9 rebounds per game. Owens earned Second-Team All-GSC honors. Junior Catherine McMenamy earned her third-straight All-GSC honor, averaging 12.6 points and 5.1 rebounds per game.
The Lady Bisons averaged 77.0 points per game, their second-highest total in school history.
Freshman Daniel Kirwa secured the University's first national title in the indoor mile in nearly 40 years, winning by one-hundredth of a second at the NCAA II Indoor Track and Field Championships at Minnesota State's Bud Meyers Field House March 15.
Kirwa crossed the finish line in 4 minutes, 12.62 seconds to barely hold off the Mansfield University of Pennsylvania runner.
Kirwa's victory was the Bisons' first indoor mile national championship since Jim Crawford won consecutive mile titles in 1968 and 1969. Crawford still owns the indoor school record in the mile with 4:01.02 set in 1968.
Kirwa ran the 5,000 meters two hours later and earned his second All-America honor of the evening, finishing third with a time of 14:21.67. Senior Julius Kosgei finished fifth in 14:26.18 to earn his third All-America honor in the indoor 5,000 and his fourth indoor All-America title overall.
The mile win gave the team 10 points, and Kirwa and Kosgei combined to earn 10 more points in the 5,000. With 20 team points, Harding placed eighth nationally.