LAREDO, Texas – With a chorus of “MVP!” chants ringing from the stands prior to the Rattlers’ trophy presentation Saturday, Kevin Kotzur stood in the back of the St. Mary’s huddle with his index finger pointing high in the sky.
Through all the ups, the downs and the in between, they had done it, securing the moment he and his Rattler teammates had dreamed of all season.
The Rattlers were champs.
Delivering quite the statement in Saturday’s Heartland Conference Tournament final, the third-seeded St. Mary’s Rattlers thumped No. 4 seed Arkansas-Fort Smith 84-70 to win the league tournament championship on Texas A&M International’s home court.
“When there was 30 seconds left was when we knew it was ours,” said Kotzur, who was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player. “I wasn’t thinking much. I was just thinking, ‘We just won.’ That’s when the team came together.”
Winning their first Heartland Tournament title since the 2007-08 season, the Rattlers shot a blistering-hot 66.7 percent from the floor, just shy of a modern-day school record, to earn the right to advance to the NCAA Division II South Central Region Tournament. They will learn of their opponent in Sunday’s Selection Show.
Leading the way was Kevin Kotzur (Jr., La Vernia, Texas), the big man in the middle who, even while standing in the very back of the group shot after the game, stood out with his giant 6-foot-8 frame.
His massive presence on the court made him stand out even more during the game.
Kotzur had 17 points and eight rebounds, going a perfect 7 for 7 from the floor a day after posting a double-double with 24 points and 13 boards in the Rattlers’ (19-8) semifinals win against Newman. The performances were enough for him to be named the Tournament MVP, while guard Moses Sundufu (Jr., Hopkins, Minn.) joined him on the All-Tournament Team.
Sundufu and fellow sharp-shooting guard Lamb Autrey (Sr., Cibolo, Texas) finished with 19 points apiece against UAFS. Autrey drained a pair of 3-pointers and Sundufu nailed one, while Daryell Taylor (Jr., Houston) went 3 of 6 from beyond the arc to finish with 17 points. Shavon Scott (So., Milwaukee) also added five key points off the bench.
“We just got hot all of a sudden and couldn’t miss at all,” Kotzur said. “I don’t’ know what it was. I know these guys can shoot. I know what I do is what I do. Everything else just worked out perfectly.”
The Rattlers meant business from the start, jumping early on a presumably exhausted UAFS team that was playing its third game in as many days after having qualified for the Heartland Tournament via a victory over Texas-Permian Basin in a play-in game Thursday.
After a back-and-forth start, St. Mary’s took full control late in the first half, pulling away to lead by as many as 12, including 11 at the break, 41-30.
UAFS tried a zone defense against St. Mary’s, but it didn’t work – not with pin-point shooters like Autrey, Taylor and Sundufu making them pay with open 3-pointers.
They tried a full-court press, but that didn’t work either – not with Autrey, D.J. Castro (Jr., El Paso, Texas) and Keith Hartle (So., San Antonio) manning the point.
And then there was the extra hustle, Ray Marshall (Sr., El Paso, Texas) diving for loose balls and Brad Hubenak (Jr., Kennedale, Texas) muscling his way inside off the bench.
The Rattlers’ lead swelled to 21 six minutes into the second half on the strength of back-to-back 3-pointers from Taylor and Autrey, and the Rattlers never looked back from there.
And the MVP had his fingerprints on it all.
Shooting 17 of 19 in the tournament – yes, 17 of 19 – Kotzur’s back-to-back performances were indicative of the kind of season turned in by the Heartland’s most decorated and dominant player. He led the league in rebounding and shooting percentage, ranked second in scoring, and was named Player of the Week more than any other player in the conference.
But the Heartland’s Player of the Year he wasn’t, according to a vote that was revealed Thursday evening on the eve of the tournament.
Did that news provide just the spark Kotzur and the guys needed?
“It might have played a part,” Kotzur said with a chuckle.
Though he wasn’t Player of the Year, he and his Rattlers walked away with what they truly wanted Saturday.
This, they knew, was undisputable.
“And much sweeter,” Kotzur said.