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Champions: Men’s Basketball Wins First-Ever NAIA National Championship

The men's basketball team poses amid confetti behind the NAIA National Champions banner

It was an exceptional season that didn’t begin with exceptional prospects. Selected to finish eighth out of 10 teams in the Crossroads League preseason poll, the SAU Men’s Basketball team appeared to have a climb ahead of them. Yet, as the regular season got underway, the Cougars continued to prove the poll wrong. One win after another led the Cougars to their first-ever Crossroads League title and secured their place in the national tournament.

The team travelled to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and were tasked with winning four games in six days to reach the championship game. After knocking off each of their opponents, including conference foe Marian University, the Cougars found themselves one win away.

As the final buzzer sounded, the Cougars had capped off their Cinderella-story season with an 82-76 victory over Oregon Tech.

Following the win, head coach Ryan Cottingham ‘94 said, “You dream about this as a player and a coach and you never really think it’s going to happen. I’m at a loss for words right now, because this is a special group of young men who love each other and play with great passion.”

The Cougars came out of the gate strong and quickly led 8-0 in the opening three minutes. Oregon Tech would catch up in the beginning of the first half, but the game continued to go in SAU’s favor as the Cougars hit three of four three-point opportunities in the first five minutes of the second half. The Owls rallied at the end, but the Cougars prevailed with a phenomenal showing in their first championship game.

Sophomore Brandon Durnell was a key player for the Cougars in the championship game. Durnell completed his evening with a career-high 32-point performance, along with eight rebounds, to lead SAU. Junior Paul Marandet had 16 points and five assists, and junior Jeff Beckman snagged 10 rebounds and added eight points.

“I keep thinking back to a quote by Dabo Swinney after Clemson won the national title this year,” said Durnell after the game. “He said, ‘No Hollywood producer could write a script like this, only God can.’ That’s really how we feel right now.” Durnell continued, “We have so much support from our fans, both around the campus and in my hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana. This is why I play basketball and why I worked so hard, and for us to end our season as national champions is just a dream come true.”

Following the game, Durnell and Marandet were named to the All-Tournament Team. Marandet was also awarded the NAIA Division II Men’s Basketball Championship Most Outstanding Player. Beckman was awarded the Hustle Award, and Coach Cottingham was named as the NAIA Division II National Coach of the Year. Most impressive, perhaps, was the final award given to the entire team, the Dr. James Naismith / Emil Liston Team Sportsmanship Award. The Cougars finished the year with 30 wins, the most in program history. Marandet was selected to the 2019 NAIA Division II Men’s Basketball All-American First Team, becoming just the second player in SAU history to earn the honor (after Jason Elder, ’97, ’98).

“I knew these guys were champions before we even got here, but now we get to celebrate,” said Cottingham. “Everything just clicked for us in Sioux Falls.”