CHICKASHA – No one really saw it coming, but the University of Science and Arts finished the season on a six-game winning streak and captured an automatic bid into the 2009 NAIA National Tournament in Kansas City. USAO will be making its fifth appearance overall and second in a row.

The last time USAO made its second straight trip to the national tournament, the Drovers brought home its only national championship. To bring home the school’s second title, this Drover team will have to shake off the stigma of its 15-17 record.

“I think that we underachieved during the regular season,” said head coach Brisco McPherson Monday. “I think that was due to some selfishness. It got to the point where our guys realized that if they wanted to be successful, they had to put the team first. It had to be a team effort, and people stopped playing for themselves and started playing to win.”

USAO snapped a four-game losing streak Feb. 23 with a 53-51 win over Southern Nazarene when senior guard Jamaal McCoy hit a running one-hander in the lane in the final seconds. The team beat Lubbock Christian by a point and dismantled Wayland Baptist by 42 points in the season finale. Just as they had done last season, the Drovers reeled off three straight wins to reach the Sooner Athletic Conference Tournament Finals. During the quarterfinals USAO defeated No. 2 Oklahoma Baptist 73-71 after losing to OBU twice by 70 combined points. Since regular-season champ and top-ranked Rogers State qualified for the tournament finals, USAO received the conference’s second automatic bid by also reaching the title game.

“Everybody wants to know exactly how we did that, and the best I can come up with is: smoke and mirrors,” McPherson said. “I had no idea what happened or how we pulled that off. We told our guys that if they want to keep playing, they have to win. Everything just worked out and the way we finished the regular season played a big part in what happened in the tournament. I guess our kids just didn’t want to quit playing.”

The things that worked out for the Drovers included being the No. 7 seed in the tournament, which meant being on the opposite site of the bracket at top-seeded RSU. USAO needed to win three and reach the finals, but it also needed RSU to reach the finals as well.

Plenty of things went right during the run of six straight wins. USAO’s Tim Nelson scored 18.8 points per game including eight 3-pointers and 28 points in the semifinal game against Oklahoma Christian and nine 3-pointers and 30 points in 22 minutes against WBU. About the only thing that didn’t go USAO’s way was Nelson’ five points in the win over OBU. But a win is a win.

The win over OBU was a lot like the season as a whole. Just when everyone counted out the Drovers, they responded. With nine games remaining, USAO lost its leading scorer Rashaad Singleton to injury, and two games later, lost starting center Jorge Parra to injury. Still the team found ways to win.

“That’s what makes this so special,” McPherson said. “We lost two starters. At that point, I doubt that our players even thought they could make it to the national tournament after that happened. They persevered and hung in there.They could have thrown in the towel and gone down to the conference tournament and gone through the motions. But that really showed me how important it was to them to compete and continue to try to make it to the national tournament.”

USAO’s perseverance will be tested once more when the national tournament begins March 18 at Kansas City’s Municipal Auditorium. The brackets have not been released as of press time, but KOOL 105.5 FM will carry the game locally and on the Internet. USAO’s sports web site will have game times, opponent information, brackets, live statistics and will carry the live stream from KOOL 105.5 FM as soon as it becomes available.