By Nick Eatman
When Jason Ebie took a phone call from Chris Hagan last summer, the two of them made a deal.
A pair of former high school stars from the Houston area, these two guards found themselves in the same boat. After starting for their respective Division I schools for more than two seasons each, both Hagan and Ebie needed a new start, a new team and a new goal. And they needed it quickly.
"I called Jason up and I knew he was being recruited to Midwestern," Hagan said. "I told him, 'I don't know where you're thinking about going, but if you come here, we're going to win a national championship.'"
Some seven months and 31 wins later, Hagan and Ebie are now three victories away from accomplishing that very goal and bringing home MSU's first-ever basketball national championship.
Hagan and Ebie are two of the backcourt stars for Midwestern State, which plays St. Cloud (Minn.) Wednesday (11 a.m. Central Time) in the Elite Eight round of the Division II NCAA Championships in Springfield, Mass.
Hagan, a junior transfer from Rice and Blinn JC, grew up playing AAU and high school ball against Ebie, who spent three years at TCU before joining Midwestern this season.
"This is exactly what I came here for - to play for a championship," Ebie said with a championship net around his neck after MSU's win over Central Missouri last week. "I told people if I was going to go to any Division II school, I wanted to win it all and set records. And that's what we're doing."
The Mustangs, led by first-year head coach Grant McCasland, are ranked third in the nation with a 31-2 record and winners of 10 straight games, including three to win the Lone Star Conference Championship in Bartlesville, Okla., and then three more in the South Central Regional in Wichita Falls.
And McCasland has certainly instilled a team-first mentality to the Mustangs, who not only lost head coach Jeff Ray and his 13 years of experience, but an All-American scorer in Nolan Richardson IV from last year's team.
This year, the Mustangs have a more balanced attack that has featured 10 different leading scorers this year. Senior guard Craig Green leads the way, scoring 16.8 points a contest. He had 12 games of at least 20 points or more was recently named Most Outstanding Players of the South Central Regional.
But one might argue that it was either Hagan, Ebie or maybe both, who proved to be the biggest difference down the stretch, especially in the waning moments of MSU's dramatic 60-59 comeback win over Central Missouri to advance to the Elite Eight round.
While Green provided the offensive spark to give MSU a 26-12 first-half lead and a seven-point halftime advantage, the Mustangs needed their other two guards late in the game after the Mules roared back to grab a six-point lead with 3:03 to play.
That's when Ebie, as he's done all year long, found a way to make plays. Ebie scored on a driving layup to slice the lead to four, and then Hagan came up with a steal on the ensuing in, dished it off to Ebie for another layup and the Mustangs were suddenly within two.
After hitting just one of two free throws on the next possession, Hagan gave MSU the lead with a floating jumper with a minute to play, putting the Mustangs in front 60-59. Central Missouri would miss two layups in the final minute to advance MSU to the next round.
After the furious finish, Hagan hopped up on the scorers table at press row, with a fist pump pointing high in the sky. Moments later, he was joined by Ebie on the table. Both guards were catalysts in the comeback, just like they've been catalysts in the team's success all season long.
"We talk about those situations all the time and these two guys just stepped up once again," said McCasland, who made it a point to sign quick guards such as Hagan and Ebie as soon as he was hired as the new basketball coach. "I knew the type of system we were going to play and we have to have guys who can be aggressive with the ball and play good defense. I knew Chris and Jason were those types of guys. And they've been everything we could've asked for and more."
Ebie and Hagan were both named All-Tournament selections for the region, and Ebie actually took home Tournament MVP honors for the LSC Championships in Bartlesville. Although he scored just three points in the final against Tarleton State and just six points in the quarterfinal round against Southwestern Oklahoma, it was his season-high 23 points against Northeastern State in the semifinals that saved his Mustangs from a potential upset. Ebie canned a pair of long-range 3-pointers in the final minutes to rally MSU for the victory.
"Whatever my team needs, I try to provide it," Ebie said. "If it's scoring, or passing or defense, I'm going to try to be that guy that can do everything."
Ebie averaged just 10.8 points per game and led the team in scoring four times. But it was his distribution on offense and constant pressure on defense that never wavered.
In fact, Ebie enters Wednesday's game against St. Cloud with 174 assists, tying LeRoy Shaw's single-season school record that has stood since 1976. Ebie also has 83 steals, good for fourth-most in a season in school history, and just five behind the record of 88, set by James Burkhalter (1988). Ebie was also named LSC South Defensive Player of the Year.
While Ebie has garnered a few more accolades, Hagan isn't far behind. He also ranks in the Top 10 in school history in single-season steals with 71, which is currently tied for sixth. Hagan ranked second on the squad in scoring with 13.6 points per game.
"Chris is just a tough kid that knows how to get the job done," McCasland said. "He's a very smart player and he's been a glue to this team this year. If we need him to score, he'll make a big shot like he did (against Central) or if we need a big steal, he'll do that, too."
In a game against Angelo State late in the regular season, with the LSC South title at stake, Hagan found himself shooting just 3-of-12 from the floor in a wide-open game where the Mustangs needed all the scoring they could get. Instead, Hagan proved to be clutch on the defensive end, registering six steals, including two in overtime of a 105-100 victory.
"My job is to just be aggressive at both ends," Hagan said. "I just want to be labeled as basketball player. I don't know if it's a scorer, or a defender - just a ball player who goes hard every play."
More than anything, Ebie and Hagan wouldn't mind being labeled as "winners" either.
Three more wins in Springfield, Mass., this week and no one would be able to dispute that.
Nick Eatman is a 1999 mass communications graduate of Midwestern State University. He is currently employed by DallasCowboys.com and is a freelance writer for the Lone Star Conference.