The 2022-23 men’s basketball season showed that this young program could be a force to be dealt with in the future. Though the year ended 25-10 overall and 10-8 in the Golden State Athletic Conference, it’s what came after the regular season end that shook the NAIA and will have OUAZ fans talking about for a long time.
The Spirit started postseason play by capturing its second-straight conference tournament with wins over Westmont (93-73), second-ranked Arizona Christian (76-66) and Hope International (71-69). The title locked the team into the NAIA tournament field of 64 and a trip to Wichita, Kan. for back-to-back games.
The Cinderella title began to stick when the Spirit beat Baker (Kan.) University (80-78) on a last second shot by Josiah De’laCerda and then handled No. 7-ranked (second seed in bracket) Oklahoma Wesleyan (83-72) to advance to the Round of 16 in Kansas City for the first time in school history.
The Spirit win streak improved to seven straight with wins against Southeastern (Fla.) University (79-71) and 10th-ranked Montana Tech (76-58). Not only did the two wins place OUAZ in the NAIA Final Four, but it also made it the youngest program to advance this far in the 85 years the tournament had been played.
The magical run came to an end to the top seed in the tournament (College of Idaho) but not before the Spirit gave fans one more reason to love this team. Down 23 with 12 minutes to play, OUAZ fought its way back and trailed 73-70 with 5.5 seconds left and the ball. Trying to repeat the fantastic finish from the Baker win, De’laCerda had his three attempted blocked and a shot at the championship game too.
De’laCerda, who was named to the all-tournament team, earned third-team NAIA All-American honors (the first NAIA All-American in program history) and was an all-conference pick (first OUAZ player to garner the honor twice).
Senior guard Keshawn Bruner was named all-GSAC, (just the third OUAZ player ever) and senior guard Kolten Hitt earned NAIA all-tournament honors.
While the Spirit lose six seniors (four of them starters), the foundation of the program is solid after back-to-back 25-win seasons, consecutive postseason championships and a trip to the Final Four. Not bad for a program just growing up.