In the twilight of a legendary Hall-of-Fame coaching career which spans over three decades, Southwestern Illinois College basketball coach Jay Harrington has seen it all.
And so when the Blue Storm dropped three of its first four Great Rivers Athletic Conference games to start the season, Harrington didn’t panic. With an early season roster which looked more like a triage scene on “MASH,” Harrington knew the talent was in place. The Blue Storm just needed to get healthy
Ranked 21st in the NJCAA Division I national poll, SWIC heads into the rugged Region 24 Tournament at Rend Lake College on Wednesday three wins away from a trip to the NJCAA National Tournament, with a lofty record of 25-5 and as the top seed.
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“We’re playing good basketball and this is a fun group of kids to be around and to coach. They’re a very loose group, sometimes too loose for the coach, but they get along very well and play well together,” Harrington said. “The thing about being the top seed is that you have this big target on your back. Everybody is gunning for you.
“I’ve been around a long time and I’ve seen several No. 1 seeds get knocked off in the first round. We need to be focused and ready to go from the start.”
The Blue Storm will battle Olney Central in the opening game of the eight-team tournament, beginning at noon on Wednesday. The winner of that will take on either Shawnee College or Lincoln Trail in the tournament semifinal at 6 p.m. on Thursday.
National powers Vincennes University and John A. Logan College are the top teams in the bottom of the bracket along with Wabash Valley and Kaskaskia College. The title game is set for 7 p.m. on Friday with the winner advancing to the NJCAA National Tournament in Hutchinson, Ks.
But it’s been a long road to the No. 1 seed and favorite’s role for the Blue Storm.
The Blue Storm’s early season woes came about in a large part to injuries to five key players. Headed to Drake University and regarded by most as one of the top junior college point guards in the nation, sophomore De’Antae McMurray missed several games early in the season because of a heart condition, while big men Justin Dieker, LaRoyce Eason and Dorian Butler, all missed playing time with ailments.
Sophomore sharpshooter Kyle Lemons also missed considerable time with injuries.
“De’Antae’s was scary because no one knew exactly what his condition was. I’m not sure anybody still knows,” Harrington said. “But we had five of our top 10 players hurt at one time early in the season including our entire front line of Dieker (6-9), Eason (6-8) and Butler (6-6). Then when we got healthy, it took a little more time fr the kids to get into playing shape.
“Healthy, we’ve proven that we’re a pretty good basketball team on both ends of the floor. The defense has been good. It was our defense that was a big part of our winning the GRAC for the first time since 2009.”
McMurray, a graduate of Alton High School, who has established himself as one of the top point guards in the nation, is the player who makes SWIC go. Sophomore Quan Poindexter is the fourth leading scorer in the GRAC, averaging just under 16 point per game, while sophomore Chris Galbreath averages almost a double-double per game at 13 points and 9.7 rebounds. Galbreath is second in the GRAC in rebounding.
McMurray, who was chosen as the NJCAA National Player of the Week after scoring 47 points in a win at John A. Logan College, averages just under 13 points per game.
Dean Criddle: 618-239-2661, @CriddleDean