Jan. 23 was a cold, wet night outside of Montreat College's McAlister Gymnasium overlooking Lake Susan.
Inside, however, students, faculty and fans were sweating as the Cavaliers' offense began to heat up, down 11 early in the first half against visiting Bryan College.
With just under three minutes left in the half, sophomore Patrick Roulette grabbed a rebound and scored 2 of his 7 points on the ensuing Cavaliers possession. The crowd cheered as the home team took a 39-37 lead, which put head coach Garrett Jones' young team up for good.
The win at home over Appalachian Athletic Conference opponent Bryan College was number 16 this season for Montreat College, putting a 20-win season for the Cavaliers in reach.
"A 20-win season at any level of basketball is a great accomplishment," Jones said. "I think having to finish the season with five straight road contests would make it even more special. It will be a huge challenge to reach 20 wins, but I know my players are excited to chase after that goal."
The last time a Montreat College team accomplished the feat was in the 2005-06 season when the Cavaliers won nine straight to close out the regular season before winning their conference tournament. That squad, which featured current Cavaliers assistant coach Tim Lewis, qualified for the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics National Championship tournament.
This year's team has a long way to go before matching the accomplishments of that team, or even the 19-win team of the 2006-07 season. But with contributions coming from many players, it can be the best the school has seen in a decade.
The Cavaliers have been hard to beat on the court in McAlister this season, where they did not lose a game until early January. They fell to 11-2 at home on Jan. 28 with a 94-86 loss to Union College. The Bulldogs, who haven't lost since Nov. 8, came into the game ranked number 2 in NAIA Division II basketball, according to the Jan. 24 coaches' poll.
"Our home crowd has been excellent," Jones said. "I can't thank our students and fans enough for the support they've provided us this year. I think our home court environment is worth 5-10 points a game. They help us that much."
But the Cavaliers play their final five games on the road. Four of those games will be against AAC opponents.
"One of my favorite things to do as a coach is to try and prepare players to be 'road warriors,'" Jones said. "It takes special players and special teams to go into tough environments and find ways to win games."
If the Cavaliers do figure out a way to get to 20 wins in the face of a tough late-season schedule, it will be because the players "continue to grow spiritually and grow closer as teammates," Jones said.
"I've been fortunate to be a part of some special teams, and those teams had two things in common - they played for something bigger than themselves and they played for each other," Jones said in reference to his playing days at Oklahoma Wesleyan University and time as an assistant coach for Southwestern Assemblies of God University.
"If we can grow in those areas, I really believe that, win or lose, these young men will have a foundation and memories that will last them a lifetime," Jones added.
Scoring for the Cavaliers has come primarily from sophomores Alonzo Mobley and Jeron Hemphill, as well as junior David Everage. However, as the season progresses, players like freshman Terrell Sheffy, who led the team with 18 points against Bryan College, are proving to be key contributors.
Finishing the regular season strong is about much more than winning 20 games for the Cavaliers, who were sitting in third place in the AAC standings as of Jan. 27, according to Jones.
"I think it's important to finish any season strong, whether it's been a challenging year or a successful year," he said. "Every successful program has a goal to be playing at their best coming into the post season. You build all year to be clicking on all cylinders for the home stretch."