Orediggers bring March Madness to Golden
With about a minute and a half left in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference Men’s Basketball Tournament championship game, it certainly looked like Colorado School of Mines’ dream of a storybook ending wasn’t going to happen.
Two weeks earlier, Mines had won in overtime on the road against their biggest rival, Fort Lewis College. But this time, it seemed all but certain things would be reversed. With 1:22 left on the clock, the Orediggers trailed the Skyhawks by eight points. If you listened to the statistics, Mines had a 99.3 percent chance of losing. They didn’t.
Somehow—in one of those “if you didn’t see it, you wouldn’t believe it” endings—the game was tied when the clock hit zero, thanks to two free throws by junior center Ben Clare. After junior guard Luke Schroepfer scored 10 of his 24 points in overtime, Mines walked off its home court with a 102-98 win.
“I can’t even remember it. There were a lot of things that had to happen for us to win, and they all did,” said head coach Pryor Orser. “Of all the wins we’ve had, that’s one of the biggest. [It] enabled us to host the NCAA regional tournament. If we hadn’t won that game, we’d be going on the road to Texas-Permian Basin.”
As it turned out, that 1:22 set the tone for the rest of the season. Mines went on to host the first three rounds of NCAA Championship play, winning the South Central regional trophy for the first time. They dominated their regional competition to the delight of deafening crowds at Lockridge Arena. Mines then defeated University of Arkansas-Fort Smith, 90-79, in the first round of the tournament before a stunning blowout of Fort Lewis, 86-67, in the second round to advance to the Sweet 16. The Orediggers went up big early against their regional final opponent, West Texas A&M University, and won 88-63, earning the team their first-ever trip to the NCAA Elite Eight in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
That two-week span in March is something few Oredigger fans will forget. Packed houses greeted Mines at each game, with the team winning six games in a row at home. “It’s really uplifting to see all these people come to support you. There’s no feeling like it,” said Clare.
As the coaches and student-athletes soon realized, their trip to South Dakota was not for any old basketball game. The team received red-carpet treatment at the host venue, the Sanford Pentagon, and was welcomed with open arms by the Sioux Falls community as they ran drills and talked about goal setting at a local elementary school. They were also interviewed by the local media and greeted by U.S. Senator John Thune and Sioux Falls Mayor Mike Huether at a kickoff banquet.
“It was so surreal,” Orser said. “For us coaches, we’re in la-la land. We’re trying to prep for the next game, and you almost forget about the prestige of going to the Elite Eight and what it’s all about.”
While the end result—a loss to national power Bellarmine University in the national quarterfinals—wasn’t what the Orediggers wanted, the experience was one they’ll never forget. Mines ended up advancing farther than any other basketball team in Mines’ history, and reaching the Elite Eight is something only two other Mines athletic programs—men’s and women’s soccer—can say they’ve done.
“It’s the first time our team has been this far. I love the guys on this team,” Schroepfer said. “There’s not much to say except that it was really fun and awesome. I wouldn’t give it up for the world.”