This is not a Cinderella story.
When the Emmanuel Lions cut down the net to cement their 2023 Conference Carolinas Championship win, they weren’t surprised.
The Lions were a young team, with several new faces asked to step up and own their role. They played a hard schedule, facing the likes of nationally ranked Augusta, UNC Pembroke, Belmont Abbey, and Barton.
They were doubted, looked over, but they believed they could win. And they did.
That belief started in the preseason when Coach T.J. Rosene challenged his players to step up and own their role.
Although the Lions started the season 7-7, Coach Rosene knew they had the makings of a good team.
“Even when we were 7-7, it was starting to click,” he said. “We were figuring things out. We had little moments, small clicks here and there that led us to believe we could be pretty good if we kept doing what we did best.”
The Lions were on a 12-game win streak then UNC Pembroke came to town.
The UNCP Braves were ranked # 5 in the nation, but the Lions believed they could win, and they did.
“We played phenomenally,” Coach Rosene remembered. “We played a good team and handled them well. That was the final click for our guys believing that we’re a good basketball team.”
Even then, the Lions played with a chip on their shoulder.
“We had to win our way into the tournament through the conference championship, and I think we all believe we are a better team than that,” Coach Rosene said. “But being ‘little ole Emmanuel’ you don’t always get that respect.”
In 2019, the Lions made it to the Sweet 16 in the tournament defeating Queens and Belmont Abbey to get there, but it didn’t carry over.
“You have to prove yourself every year,” he said. “They may think it’s a Cinderella story, or a little bit of a run, but internally our guys don’t feel that way. They know we have a quality basketball team. Going into the tournament in 2019, maybe people didn’t believe we were capable of doing what we did, but our guys believed we could.”
And he feels this group has that same fight in them.
Why? Because they play for each other. When asked what word he would use to describe this team, Coach Rosene didn’t hesitate.
“Love,” he said. “This team cares for each other, so they are fun to coach. As for the coaching staff, I would say our word is gratitude because we are thankful to watch this team’s and witness how much they have grown spiritually, physically, mentally, in every realm.”
Another part of the season that has been fun to watch for Coach Rosene, is how the team’s leading scorer, K.J. Jones has continued to shine and become one of the top players in the nation.
“It is rare that he leads the nation in scoring and is an unselfish player,” he said. “It’s rare that he has options and stays loyal to Emmanuel. It’s rare to have that caliber of a player, who will make good money playing basketball, come to one of the smallest D2 schools in the country and make it his home. He is a great example for young people, making the big time where you are. He made his own path. Kudos to him in saying, I am going to cut my own path and be great right where I’m at, and he did that.”
Why should a prospect choose Emmanuel?
“I think they should choose Emmanuel because they have prayed about it,” he said. “We want the right people here. We have had people walk away because we didn’t have this or that. But the people who have stayed realize there’s something different about this place that could change their lives forever.”
Emmanuel’s trip to the NCAA Tournament is not a Cinderella story. Instead, it is a story of a team that persevered and believed, even when no one else did.
“Sometimes going on a journey like this is even more fun when you’re little ole Emmanuel,” Coach Rosene said. “Nobody thinks you can do it; nobody thinks you can get there but we all know that we serve a big God, and he gives you big goals and opportunities if you ask him. We asked him and He continues to show up for us every single time.”
Next, the Lions will face a familiar opponent in #1 seeded Augusta University on Saturday at 5p.m. It will be a tall task, but little old Emmanuel will be up for the challenge.