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March 14, 2014

WALLACE STATE BASKETBALL: Lions seeking bigger prize when NJCAA tournament begins on Monday   

HANCEVILLE — When Wallace State men’s basketball coach John Meeks inherited the post back in July 2010, the program was less than four months removed from its first-ever national tournament appearance.

On Monday night, Meeks — who recently turned 31 — and the Lions will be making the program’s third National Junior College Athletic Association Division I national tournament appearance in the last five seasons — the second under Meeks.

“It’s definitely says a lot about our program and our athletics program as a whole that we’re in this spot to compete for a national championship,” Meeks said. “Wallace State men’s basketball has created a name for itself. We have worked on becoming the hunted within the state and have earned a lot of credibility. Allen Sharpe was able to send the team to its first national tournament before he left, and we’ve been able to continue that success.”

Wallace State (27-6) needs five more wins in order to put a national-championship cap on an incredible season. The Lions open play Monday in Hutchinson, Kansas against Westchester (N.Y.) Community College at 6:30 p.m. in the Sports Arena.

The Lions are seeded 15th in a 24-team field. The winner of Monday’s game will advance to play second-seeded Vincennes (Ind.) on Wednesday.

“I really like our draw,” Meeks said. “I think this first game is a good matchup for us. If we play loose and free like we did during our conference tournament, we’ll be fine. Our guys are ready to step up the plate and embrace the challenge that’s in front of them. We aren’t going to be awfully satisfied with being there. Our mindset is to go there to win it. We don’t want anything less than a national championship. We have earned two prizes this season and we want a third.”

Wallace State’s journey to Hutch has been an entertaining ride. The Lions sent a quick message to the league by reeling off 14 straight win from Dec. 19 to Feb. 13. The Lions earned the ACCC’s North Division regular-season championship,  dropping only two conference games but, down the stretch, had to overcome injuries to key starters and schedule changes because of inclement weather.

Wallace State continued to soar during the conference tournament. The Lions beat Bishop State by 24 points in a quarterfinal game, Lawson State by 10 in the semifinals and captured their second title under Meeks with a 77-67 triumph over rival Shelton State in the title game.

“It’s not easy to win both championships, but winning both showed the strong will and focus of this team. Our guys rose to the challenge in every situation and understood that all the hard work we’ve put in wasn’t going to go unnoticed,” said Meeks, who will be making his 8th national tournament appearance as either an assistant or head coach. “We were challenged with injuries and all sorts of things in the regular season and it made us stronger the rest of the way, including the  three grueling days during the tournament.”

A trio of guards has paced Wallace State all season, each averaging double digits. Sophomore Jestin Lewis, a Mercer commit, averages a team-high 18.6 points per game, Lee Moore averages 17.8 points and a squad-high 7.4 rebounds, and sophomore point guard Marcus Johnson contributes 14.1 points as well.

Lewis and Moore were both named to the All-Region 22 first team for their stellar regular-season work. Moore was named the conference tournament MVP after pouring in 53 points over three games. Lewis was also an all-tournament selection  after posting a career-high 31 points vs. Shelton State in the title game. Johnson and Marcus Burwell were also all-tourney selections.

The NJCAA Division I national tournament is entering only its second year as a single-elimination tournament. The previous times Wallace State has advanced to Hutchinson, it’s been a double-elimination event. The Lions finished fifth in the country in 2010 and tallied one victory in 2012 after losing their first-round game.

Meeks, the 2014 ACCC Coach of the Year, is carrying a more talented and deeper Wallace State team to Hutchinson than he did in 2012. The Lions barely snuck into the state tournament that season as a No. 6 seed, winning four games in four days at the state tournament in order to advance to nationals.

The 2012 team rotated only seven players by postseason time.

“We definitely belong there this season,” Meeks said. “It’s going to be a great atmosphere for our guys, and most of them were used to playing on this type of stage in high school. I really think our guys are going to relish the spotlight. There is a lot of nostalgia at this tournament. Some legendary coaches have stood on the sidelines and some great players have hit the court. I feel we have a chance to add to that. I think we can go out there and make some noise and put Wallace State basketball even more on the map.”

All tournament games will be streamed live on through NJCAA TV.

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