By Brittany Kriz, Martin Methodist, NAIA Virtual Intern, Class of 2014
Just one more basket, just two more points. Then, the buzzer rang, and it was all over. The team had lost, beaten in the Fab Four round of what's coined College Basketball's Toughest Tournament.
Last season broke records. The 34 wins the team compiled were the most wins by any four year institution in the nation. The team made a compelling run in the 74th Annual Buffalo Funds-NAIA Division I Men's Basketball National Championship in Kansas City, Mo. That season was a proud moment. But, for Martin Methodist basketball players James Justice and Ree McCrory, the 2011 campaign was almost too much for words.
"Last season, we had a lot of chemistry," Ree said. "We were family, and we knew how to play with each other. It was devastating when we got beat."
Martin Methodist fell in the semifinals to the University of Pikeville (Ky.) in a 110-99 throw down. But, the team succeeded by going further in the National Championship than any other TranSouth Conference team.
"God was first and foremost," James said. "Also, the team trusted each other. We acted as a family, and our togetherness and defense helped us succeed. Coach Sharpe was a big part, too. He was tough on us and we had to buy into playing defense hard."
Despite losing in the Fab Four, the NAIA recognized Ree and James' immense talent by naming them both NAIA All-Americans.
"It was a blessing," James said. "All the players in the conference were good players, so it was an honor to be named an All-American."
James earned a spot on the All-American First Team, was named TranSouth Athletic Conference Player of the Year, earned a place on the All-TranSouth First Team, was named TranSouth Scholar-Athlete and Newcomer of the Year.
"James is very talented in his own right," said Head Coach Andy Sharpe. "He was blessed with tremendous athletic ability, a great handle on the ball, excellent vision, a good shooter and he has the ability to make big plays in big situations, or the 'clutch gene' as I like to call it."
Ranked in the top ten for both assists and steals, James definitely brought that tremendous talent to every game.
"But, there aren't many All-Americans who get to play alongside Ree either," Sharpe added.
With 15.3 points per game, Ree led the Redhawks in scoring and certainly earned All-American status.
"I believe I got the honor for the work I put into the Martin Methodist basketball program," Ree said. "And, my mother was a big motivation. When I was down, she always knew the right words to pick me back up. She told me how I could do better."
Ree was also awarded a spot on the All-TranSouth First Team, named a TranSouth Scholar-Athlete and took home conference Player of the Week honors.
"Last year, Ree was a very good player, but I have never seen a player work over the summer as hard as he has worked," Sharpe said. "He has gone from good to great. Now a consistent jump shooter, he and James will be difficult to stop."
The fall to Pikeville in the NAIA's Fab Four has given the team a new focus and slogan: Unsatisfied.
"We put in a ton of hard work," Ree said. "Then, to see it fall was the most terrible thing. I don't want this season end that way. The new slogan shows people that we want to accomplish more than last year."
Unsatisfied, created by assistant coach David Anderson, is a reminder of the empty hole that wasn't filled during the 2011 NAIA Division I Men's Basketball National Championship.
"We left Kansas City defeated," Sharpe said. "Our hunger to accomplish our ultimate goal of winning it all went unsatisfied. A lot of teams will rest on their laurels. I know this coaching staff is not, and we are pushing our returners to lead with a chip on their shoulder."
James and Ree define themselves and the way they play by their personalities. Both are tremendous leaders on and off the court.
"We felt like we needed to be the leaders," James said. "But, we are not the only ones. Cameron Hall, LaQuantis Stewart and E.J. Kirby also help lead the team."
According to Sharpe, James expresses his discreet leadership by playing on the court while Ree is more outspoken.
"Fortunately for us, they mesh well together on the floor and have both accepted that neither of them has to be 'the Big Dog'," Sharpe added. "They need one another to be successful collectively as a team and individually. They could have butt heads and each try to take control of the team on their own, but they each gave a little and both were named All-Americans."
When Sporting News predicted Martin Methodist would finish second in addition to James and Ree being repeat All-Americans, both players believe the team will do better.
"I don't think second place is going to happen," James said. "All-American is an individual honor, but we want to win the National Championship as a team."
For James and Ree, this season will be their last year in a Redhawks uniform. James plans to graduate with a degree in physical education, and Ree would like to major in business or sports management. Both would like to test their skills overseas or coach basketball after graduation. But before they don a cap and gown the duo hopes to have a national championship title to add to their growing list of awards and accolades.