Cheers erupted inside Gaither Fellowship Hall at Montreat College on Feb. 27, as the men’s basketball program celebrated its first trip to the NAIA Men’s Division II Basketball Championship Tournament in over a decade.
The Cavaliers, fresh off of posting the most wins (24) in team history, will open the tournament in Sioux Falls, South Dakota against Mount Vernon Nazarene (Ohio) on Thursday, March 7.
The Cavs earned a number 5 seed in the Cramer Bracket of the tournament after finishing the regular season as the runner-up in the Appalachian Athletic Conference. They opened the conference tournament with a pair of wins and advanced to the championship game on Feb. 23, in Kingsport, Tennessee. Montreat fell in overtime to regular season AAC champion Union College, which picked up its sixth consecutive tournament title.
As the conference runner-up, Montreat earned an automatic bid in the NAIA tournament for the third time in the program’s history.
“We’re humbled and honored to represent this school in South Dakota,” fourth-year head coach Garrett Jones told the gathering in the fellowship hall. “I want to thank you all for coming out, and I want to thank my assistant coaches for all of their work to help get us here.”
Kent Otto is known to many around the Town of Montreat as a member of the town's board of commissioners, but around Montreat College he’s recognized as a fixture on the team's sideline for nearly a decade.
He coached alongside Jones’ predecessor Lincoln Walters for five seasons. Otto remained on the staff when Jones took over in 2015, as the Cavs posted a 4-20 record.
“It’s been really exciting to be part of some winning teams the last few seasons,” he said. “It’s awesome to see how this program has progressed.”
One bright spot on that 2015 squad was a freshman from Lincolnton named Alonzo Mobley. He earned AAC Freshman of the Year honors while averaging over 15 points and 5 rebounds per game.
Things began turning around for the Cavs in 2016, as they won 19 games before falling to Allen University in the conference tournament. The program won 21 games in 2017-18, when Mobley scored his 1,000th career point.
With the end of his college basketball career approaching, Mobley called it an “honor and a blessing” to be part of this year’s team.
“Getting to the (NAIA) tournament was something I really wanted to achieve when I got here,” he said. “I wanted to leave a big mark on this great school and community and help start something that coach can build on in the future.”
Mobley was the team’s second-leading scorer this season and earned a spot on the all-AAC second team. A pair of Morgantown natives, junior Austin Butler and senior Jeron Hemphill, were named to the first team.
Butler led the Cavs in scoring with 16.9 per game, placing him seventh among the conference. Hemphill averaged 11.9 while leading the team with 9.3 rebounds per contest.
As a team the Cavaliers finished the season in the top 5 of every major statistical category in the AAC.
The team was scheduled to fly to South Dakota on March 4.
“I think it will be great for the guys to be exposed to basketball teams from all over the country,” Otto said. “This is going to be a wonderful experience for them.”
For some players, like Mobley, it will be their first time on an airplane.
“It’s really cool because this will be something I get to experience with my teammates,” he said smiling. “These are my last few moments with these guys and I’m looking forward to us competing together one last time.”
Among the crowd celebrating the team’s return to the national tournament were Jesse Gardner and Tim Lewis.
Gardner, a Swannanoa Valley native who starred at Owen High School before playing at Montreat, was a member of the first Cavs team to punch a ticket to the NAIA tournament.
“We went to the tournament 19 years ago in Branson (Missouri),” he said. “That was my sophomore season.”
Gardner, who is a regular at Montreat’s home games, is happy to see the program doing well.
“I love to see banners go up,” he said. “There is a lot of excitement around here now.”
Gardner’s Montreat jersey number (20) hangs in the rafters at McAlister Gymnasium, alongside that of Tim Lewis (34). Lewis was an assistant coach in the men’s team for three seasons until he stepped in to take over the women’s program near the end of the 2017-18 season.
Lewis was a member of the last Montreat team to earn a tournament bid. The 2006 Cavs won their first game and advanced to the second round before falling.
“Coach Jones has really instilled in this group the importance of hard work,” Lewis said. “Now you can see it paying off and it’s great to witness.”
The athleticism of this roster is what stands out most to Lewis, who adds that this squad will long be remembered on campus.
“They’re only the third team in the history of Montreat College to go to the tournament,” he said. “They’re in the history books now.”
Gardner and Lewis addressed the team after their position in the tournament was announced.
“It’s hard to get where you are,” Gardner said. “Don’t take it for granted, but soak it all in. It’s a business trip though, so go up there and handle business.”
Lewis is excited for the players and coaches, he said.
“Go up there and enjoy it,” he said. “I appreciate you guys working so hard to get here. Go up there believing you can win this, because I really think you guys can.”