By Jim Henry
Globe Sports Editor
Entering the 1999-2000 basketball season, Missouri Southern guard Eddin Santiago had a little inside information.
“I knew we were going to be better than the year before because I knew Carlos (Escalera, his high school teammate) could play, and he didn’t play the year before,” he said. “I’ve known Carlos forever, and nobody else here knew how he played, so I had like an edge. I knew he was going to be real good.”
But the Lions exceeded Santiago’s expectations — and everyone else’s expectations.
“I never thought we were going to be 30-3,” Santiago said.
“We felt like we would have a good, solid basketball team,” coach Robert Corn said. “But to the extent of what we did, no. I don’t think you can go into any season thinking you are going to win 30 games.”
The Lions returned only two starters — Santiago and Terry Shumpert — and one reserve — Carlos Newberry — from the previous year’s team that lost in the first round of the conference tournament.
Osiris Ricardo returned after missing one season with a knee injury. Escalera joined the team after a redshirt season, and the Lions added freshman David Ragland and transfers Brad Mann, Blake Bard, Leo Gomes, Adam Babcock and Pieterbas deWildt.
“It was like a big puzzle, and all the pieces came together,” Bard said. “The coaching staff, you can’t say enough about Coach Corn and Coach (Chris) Lowery and Coach (Paul) Lusk. They took some young guys coming off a somewhat disappointing season and several new guys and wound up with a 30-win season that came within a second of a national championship game.”
The Lions won more than half of their games at home in the brand new Leggett & Platt Athletic Center. During the 18-0 home campaign, the Lions cut down the nets three times to celebrate championships — MIAA regular season and postseason tournament and South Central regional tournament.
“After the first few home games, by the middle of the year you could not find seats,” Bard said. “The community grabbed a hold of the success we had. It was one of those magical years ... from the talent of our roster and coaching staff, the community and the fans, opening up a new gym, cutting down the nets three times. It was such a blessing. People even asked me for my autograph.”
An early season ankle injury led to season-ending surgery for deWildt. That left 10 players on the roster, and all 10 knew they were going to get their minutes. And for the most part, they were productive minutes.
For example, a 9-0 spurt with five reserves on the floor ignited an 83-71 victory over Washburn. Ragland stepped in as a starter and had six points and five assists in a 29-point road victory over Emporia State when Santiago stayed in Joplin with the flu, and in the regional championship, backup center Babcock entered after two early fouls on Ricardo and had nine points and seven rebounds in a season-high 23 minutes.
“The starting five had a high talent level,” Bard said. “Us reserves, we wanted to come in and bring excitement, bring energy. Getting defensive stops and going on 5-, 10- and 15-point swings became fun for us. Nobody was saying I need to be starting or I need more minutes. From the leading scorer to the guys who would come in and get a few rebounds, everyone accepted their roles.”
The Lions reached the Elite Eight in Louisville and knocked off No. 1-ranked Florida Southern 76-65 in the quarterfinals.
“At the banquet, as soon as they saw us, they thought the game was over,” Santiago said. “They had a swagger like they had us, and we didn’t like that.”
The season ended the next day with a 75-74 loss to Metro State as a loose-ball foul with 1.5 seconds left led to the game-deciding free throw.
Corn, named the Division II Bulletin national coach of the year, summarized the team with one word: toughness.
“We won so many games by being tougher than our opponent,” he said. “That’s something that comes from within. Our guys showed all year long they have a lot of toughness.”