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Westminster Griffins have built NAIA powerhouses

Published: Wednesday, March 10 2010 12:00 a.m. MST

The Westminster bench celebrates as the Griffins beat Montana Western for the Frontier Conference championship on Monday.

Michael Brandy, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — Construction zones are a common sight at Westminster these days as new buildings are raised around campus.

These edifices are not the only things being built. On the basketball court, the school is quietly fashioning a pair of teams that are becoming true national powers within the NAIA ranks.

Westminster is ranked fourth nationally in men's basketball, and the Griffins put the finishing touches on back-to-back sweeps of regular season and tournament crowns in the Frontier Conference when they beat Montana Western 76-68 at Behnken Field House on Monday.

Ranked No. 9 overall, Westminster's women's basketball team is enjoying its highest ranking in school history and the Griffins claimed their second straight regular season conference championship this season.

Both teams are assured of a berth in the NAIA National Tournament this season. And both have stayed atop their conference after graduating key starters and playmakers from a year ago.

Perhaps it is a sign that their twin rise into an NAIA power is no temporary thing. Westminster might possess staying power as a national elite.

"This whole year has been special," Westminster coach Tommy Connor said. "This has been an unbelievable team. We've overachieved. These guys have been a great group."

Even with the graduation of several key players — including, most notably, Geoff Payne — Connor's team still entered the new season facing heightened expectations. They were the preseason pick to win the Frontier Conference and debuted as a top 10 team in the NAIA Coaches Top 25 Poll.

Westminster initially struggled to a 3-4 start. Things fell into place soon enough, though, once the team realized how much untapped potential it possessed.

"We were all new guys," senior point guard Jeramie Hopson said. "I'm the only starter from last year. Our chemistry came. That's what really happened."

With great chemistry came great big winning streaks. Heading into next week's NAIA tournament, the Griffins (26-5) own a 13-game winning streak. In fact, the team has lost just once in its last 24 contests.

What it means is Westminster can likely expect a favorable draw when the 32-team bracket is unveiled this afternoon. The Griffins already feel good about their chances to do well when they head to Kansas City next week.

"We are confident," senior forward Connor Nielsen said. "Every game we play to win and every game we prepare ourselves to win. We don't take any team for granted. Every team we prepare for — it doesn't matter who it is."

Things also look promising for the Griffins' women's team. Heading into Tuesday night's championship game with No. 13 Lewis-Clark State, Westminster had already clinched an NAIA bid by virtue of its top 10 ranking and regular season conference title.

The only thing really at stake — besides a Frontier Conference tournament title — was a chance to position itself for a favorable draw in the NAIA bracket.

Both teams hope to further validate their top 10 status with deep runs on a national stage. Still, at this point, there are plenty of reasons to feel good about how the season has played out for Westminster across the basketball spectrum.

From the perspective of the players propelling the Griffins to new heights, just taking an active role in building another wall in an ever burgeoning NAIA basketball program offers plenty of satisfaction.

"This program is great," junior Ben Walker said. "When they started recruiting me here, I was kind of unsure about it. But this is the funnest basketball I've played in a long time. It's been a blast."

Both teams will learn who their first-round opponents are when the 32-team NAIA fields are announced this afternoon. The men's tournament field will be announced at 2 p.m., followed by the women's field at 2:30 p.m.

The tournament selection will be broadcast live on Collegefanz.com

e-mail: jcoon@desnews.com

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