Pilots grab their championship
March 08, 2006
Rico Payne invested two years at LSUS and didn't have a conference championship to show for it. He made certain the Pilots snared one in his final year.
Payne was nearly unstoppable from 3-point range, leading the Pilots to a 114-99 win over Spring Hill College on Tuesday for their first Gulf Coast Athletic Conference tournament title since the program's resurrection.
The last time Spring Hill visited LSUS, Payne had only six free throws on the stat sheet. He finished Tuesday's contest as the game's top scorer with 40 points, shooting 8-for-13 from 3-point range.
"It was my very last time playing in front of my friends and family and I wanted to give them something to remember me," Payne said. "I've only felt like that in maybe three or four games."
Next up for the Pilots (28-3) is the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics national tournament in Kansas City, which begins March 15.
Despite his long list of individual accomplishments, Payne didn't have a tournament title to his resume. He has his GCAC Player of the Year award and his NAIA All-America selection as well as being the most prolific scorer in the program's history.
LSUS added a conference regular season championship last week to earn their trip to Kansas City.
But, that conference title still eluded him and the Pilots. The last two seasons they were bumped from the conference tournament in the semifinals.
They were tournament champions on Tuesday in large part to Payne's remarkable shooting night.
"We've seen him shoot like that at practice," LSUS head coach Chad McDowell said. "That was the best performance in three years that I've seen him do. That was beyond the zone and it was fun to watch."
Spring Hill offered a tremendous challenge in an emotional and physical battle between the teams. Noah Woolridge kept the Badgers in the game through the early stages of the second half.
Woolridge nearly kept pace with Payne, shooting 7-of-11 from 3-point range and finishing as the Badgers' leading scorer with 28 points.
Thanks to Payne, the Pilots' lead grew to as large as 16 points midway through the first half.
Spring Hill didn't retreat. Instead, the Badgers made their move after halftime, making a 17-5 run to take the lead at 69-67.
"We knew they would come out strong in the second half, but we knew we'd have to make a stand and play tough defense," Payne said.
The Badgers held onto the lead momentarily before the Pilots gathered their composure.
"We said if they're going to get looks, let's get them contested," McDowell said. "As much as they were getting the open shots, they were hitting the contested ones too."
Ultimately, as has been the case all season, the Pilots' depth proved to be too much for another opponent.
"We felt like we had more legs and a deeper bench," McDowell said. "If the pace of the game continued some of their shots
"They wanted to use the shot clock and that actually is to our advantage. If they're going to use 20 seconds off the clock, it was going to be a hard 20 seconds working for a shot."
Jeremy Johnston scored 19 points for LSUS, Shadrach Roome added 16 points and Freddy Hughes had 10.
The Pilots await the NAIA tournament pairings which will be announced later today. Odds are the Pilots will at least be a No. 3 seed and will likely be the No. 2 seed since they finished No. 2 in the final NAIA poll.
March 8, 2006