When you’re off to another “best start in program history,” bumps in the road like Thursday’s loss at Life University are taken in stride at Georgetown College.
This is the program that’s been to six NAIA Tournament championship games, including two in the last five years, winning it all in 1998 and 2013. The last “best start” saw them reach the finals in 2016, a heart-wrenching 100-99 loss in overtime.
This is Georgetown. Winning is the default setting.
“Georgetown’s been like this for a long time,” said Chris Briggs, in his seventh year as head coach. “I tell our guys all the time that Georgetown is what it is, and it’s been this way since before they or I were born. It goes back to Bob Davis and Jim Reid and Happy Osborne laying the foundation over the last 60 years and all those players that played for them that built this thing into what it is.”
This year’s team is ranked No. 1 in the NAIA and is off to a 16-1 start, averaging more than 107 points per game. Despite the early success, Briggs said playing in the Mid-South Conference, which includes five top-25 teams, will be the real test.
“The year we won (the 2013 title), we were 1-4 starting the conference and that’s a testament to how good this conference is,” Briggs said. “It’s one of the best, probably the best small college basketball conference in the country from top to bottom.”
Tuesday morning ahead of a midday practice, Briggs paced the court of the Davis-Reid Alumni Gym. He was a little winded from his pre-practice warm-up. There are no frills at Georgetown, and Briggs doesn’t just stand on the sideline with a whistle. When practice begins he takes turns with his assistants bodying up players in the paint as they go through their paces.
Built in 1926, Alumni Gym has a listed capacity of 2,500. One can only assume that’s if fans stood on the court with the players. With 12 rows of pullout bleachers running the length of one side of the court, maybe seven rows of the same in each end zone and six rows of chair backs behind the benches, it’s smaller than many high school gyms in Kentucky. It looks like it could have been a fine setting for a road game in the movie “Hoosiers.”
Its furnace has two settings, Briggs joked. “On and off.” It sometimes feels like it’s 110 degrees in there when it’s blasting.
“I love it,” he said. “A lot of people say, ‘When are y’all going to get a new gym? Y’all need a nice, new, big gym.’ I don’t want a big gym with 900 people in it that looks empty because it’s so big. I’d like to fix a couple of things up in here and keep this what it is … Keep it small. Keep it tight with a packed crowd.”
What Georgetown lacks in glamour it makes up for in glory.
Banners for all of the Tigers’ sports programs ring the top of the beautiful brick barn. They include Georgetown’s 1998 and 2013 NAIA national titles and its four runner-up finishes in 1961, 1996, 2000 and 2016. Briggs led the latest two runs.
“There’s so much tradition here. There’s such a special atmosphere here,” Briggs said. “It’s one of the best gyms in the country to watch small college basketball. There’s something about this small packed gym on a big game night when it’s No. 1 vs. No. 5 in the country or whatever.”
The players all wear the same number on their practice jerseys: 27. Georgetown has made 26 straight NAIA Tournament appearances. The expectations are clear.
“I feel like we should be able to win it all,” said Shadell Millinghaus, a transfer from Texas Tech and the team’s leading scorer and rebounder. “That’s what I came here for. That’s what these guys are here for. That’s what we’re expecting. I need a ring. I don’t have a ring yet. I’m just trying to make my mark somewhere.”
Briggs, known for his high-pressure, full-court and fast-flowing style, has another rollicking and relentless team powered by a core of seniors who were part of the team’s run to the 2016 finals and a mix of standouts highlighted by Millinghaus.
“It’s a lot of fun when you get great kids that bond together and look after each other and play hard and want to win and want to do something special,” Briggs said. “I think that’s what we have with this group.”
Millinghaus, a journeyman guard who has had two Division I stints that turned out to be poor fits, looks to finish his college career in style. His dynamic potential has been on full display for the Tigers, averaging 24.5 points and 9.6 rebounds as part of a balanced attack.
Briggs’ connections to Millinghaus’ prep school and junior-college coaches helped steer the fifth-year senior to Georgetown.
“I hadn’t ever heard of Georgetown before,” said Millinghaus, who said he just put his trust in his former coaches about his next stop. When he got to see what Briggs and his program was about, “I was like, ‘Dang, I should have known about Georgetown.’”
Hometown Scott County hero Trent Gilbert and Flemingsburg native Darion Burns were starters on the Tigers’ 2016 finals team. Quan Poindexter, a senior out of Hopkinsville, was an NAIA All-American last year. In all, six players on the 2016 finals team are on this year’s roster.
“That’s big for us because we know how tough it is to make it to the national tournament and then play five games in six days or seven days or whatever it is, it’s tough,” Gilbert said. “It’s a dogfight every night.”
In 2016, Gilbert had transferred after a year as a preferred walk-on at Louisville. The subsequent years have proved to him that he made the right choice.
“I don’t regret going to Louisville, but I definitely don’t regret coming here,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed getting to play ball in front of my home crowd.”
The team’s mix of new blood and veteran leadership is a big part of what makes them good, Briggs said. Their willingness to play for each other and sacrifice for the team could make them special.
“We tell them if you play the way we want to play — we play hard, we play unselfish and we play together — all the stats will take care of themselves,” Briggs said. “And they have, so far. …
“Play hard. Play unselfish. And get the win.”
No. 24 Cumberlands at No. 1 Georgetown
When: 4 p.m. Saturday