By Devin Golden
Ask Tony Ingle if he expected this much early success for Dalton State College men’s basketball team, and he would say, “No way.”
Apparently, there has been a way.
Entering the second half of the season, Dalton State has the most wins of any team in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. A 14-1 start to Dalton State’s return to college hoops cannot be viewed as anything but an enormous positive for an entirely new program combining a new coach with an entirely new roster.
Playing an independent schedule, the Roadrunners are on a 10-game winning streak and has won five games by four points or less and two games in overtime. There were other games, Ingle said, where the verdict wasn’t decided until the last minute. One was the team’s only loss, an 89-87 defeat against Tennessee Wesleyan College.
“There were seven games within a basket with seconds remaining,” he recalled. “One, we got beat, and the other six we won. We’re extremely fortunate and lucky. I’ll take it.”
Give credit to Ingle and his staff, who know who to rely on at the end of tight games. Senior guard Ricky Sears leads the team with 16.7 points per game, and junior Preston Earle trails with 14.3 points per game. Then there is point guard Sean Tate, another junior who leads with an 81.5 free-throw percentage on a team posting a 62.4 percentage.
“This team, we needed to make sure who are the two guys involved in a play,” Ingle said. “Our two go-to guys are Ricky and Preston. Sean is so good at creating and also a tremendous foul shooter. Those are the three guys we rely on at the end on offense.”
On defense, junior post Raheem Mosley leads with 11 blocks and junior guard Anthony Hilliard has become the team’s premier perimeter defender.
“Anthony Hilliard has received a lot of credit for his defense, along with Sean,” Ingle said.
Earle said the team was “thinking we wanted to go undefeated” when the schedule began. Now, the Roadrunners are hoping for a postseason berth and eyeing at least another victory-filled second half.
“We want to just play our best every game and come out with a win,” Earle said. “We want to finish the season strong.”
Dalton State has 15 more regular season games after tonight’s exhibition contest against Division I foe Austin Peay University. The Roadrunners, who will join the school’s other sports next school year in the Southern States Athletic Conference, do not have conference affiliation for this season. Because of that, and because it is a first-year program, athletic director Derek Waugh said the NAIA may not allow Dalton State to compete in the annual 32-team national tournament, scheduled for March.
Of the teams in last season’s bracket, Dalton State already has defeated South Carolina’s Voorhees College and will play twice against Alabama’s Faulkner University and once against Life University.
Of the 15 schools expected to be in the SSAC next season, Dalton State has beaten Auburn University-Montgomery, Belhaven University, Southern Polytechnic State University and Southern Wesleyan University. Spring Hill College is another SSAC team this season — and the first victim to Dalton State this year — but is transitioning from NAIA competition to NCAA Division II status and will play an NCAA Division II schedule in 2014-2015.
While measuring success against future conference foes is important — and seeing wins is promising — Ingle said there still is improvement for all of his players heading into 2014.
“My responsibility as a coach is to help each one of the individual players improve in their positions, placements and roles on the team,” he said. “Honestly, each one can improve. Like Raheem, for example, is like others who need to improve on their foul shooting.”
Mosley is shooting a team-low 27.3 percent from the foul line.
All season, Ingle said height was an issue for the roster. That was helped when Erich Allen, a 6-foot-7-inch, 225-pound sophomore forward, became eligible earlier this month once the fall semester concluded. He played in the team’s last three games and is averaging 5.7 points and 2.7 rebounds while playing just under 10 minutes per game.
Another potential post player who could become eligible is Ladaris Green, a 6-10, 225-pound junior who played for Ingle at Kennesaw State in 2009-2010 and 2010-2011.
“We’re trying to get him there. We’ll have to see,” Ingle said. “He’s got this (next) semester and all of next year eligibility-wise. I want to get him back in competition. He hasn’t played in a couple years.”