Fulks, Pios complete their joyful journey

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Transylvania All-American Madison Kellione (left) and head coach Juli Fulks celebrate their joyful journey with one more high five.
Photo by Luke C. Zayas, D3sports.com

By Gordon Mann

DALLAS –In a season that did not have many close games, Transylvania was reeling a little bit late in the fourth quarter of the 2023 NCAA Tournament championship game.

The Pioneers’ lead over Christopher Newport had melted from 13 points midway through the third quarter to four with four minutes left in the game. The Captains Chaos full-court press generated a turnover basket, and soon the Captains pulled even at 47.

Transylvania head coach Juli Fulks paced the sidelines, in her maroon sneakers and bat-bedecked blouse, concerned but not panicked. There was no screaming, no wild gesticulations, no pleading to the officials for a call. Just a small grimace and a word or two of direction to each team.

With the game still tied at 47, Transylvania grabbed a defensive rebound and called timeout. Fulks gave some direction to her team, and then they calmly waited for the long television timeout to end. No fist pumping, no shouting. The crowd became increasingly excited, the stakes got increasingly higher, but the Pioneers seemed immune to the pressure.

Transylvania got the ball to All-American guard Madison Kellione who drove the rim and drew the foul. She calmly splashed through two free throws, briefly giving the Pioneers the lead. After Christopher Newport tied the game with 64 seconds left, Pios’ forward Dasia Thornton slipped to the rim and put Transylvania back in front, 51-49, with 43 seconds left.

A few minutes later Thornton grabbed a defensive rebound off CNU’s game-tying attempt and there was another timeout. Transylvania put the ball in Kellione’s hands again. With the season and a national title on the line, Kellione once again absorbed the foul and smoothly dropped in two free throws. Thirteen seconds and four more free throws later, Transylvania had a 57-52 victory, a perfect season and a national championship.

As Transylvania’s crowd erupted and the Pioneer players dogpiled on each other under a celebratory web of streamers and confetti, Fulks remained calm, smiling on the sideline. She hugged her staff, including long-time assistant Tim Whitesel, and let the players celebrate. Whatever the emotional swing was on the court, the Pioneers sideline was still poised in its celebration.

Transylvania completed its unblemished, and largely undaunted, run to the 2023 national championship under Fulks’ steady, calming leadership. Throughout the season, she had emphasized to her team that the Pioneers should find “joy in the journey,” and not let one loss, whenever it occurred, define the months they spent together. Her team reflected that calm back to her, even when it looked like that one loss might come at the worst time imaginable.

Kellione, the team’s All-American guard, plays the game with poise, quiet confidence, and lethal efficiency. Despite playing in a cavernous NBA arena with screaming fans, she made those late free throws look as rote as they would have been in an anonymous mid-season practice in Lexington.

Kellione, who has a 3.96 grade point average as a physics major, was still poised and understated in the postgame press conference, smoothly addressing questions about what the title meant to her. Then she lit up a little when asked what it’s like to play for Fulks, who was also a science major in college (biology).

“She is the most amazing coach I’ve ever played for. She’s a great role model and she’s there for us, on the court or off the court. The effect she’s had on each of our lives is something we’re always going to remember, and I know we can call her any time, and she’ll pick up the phone.”

Dasia Thornton, who, like Fulks, is capable of gracious honesty, echoes those thoughts.

“It’s been great playing for her for four years. She knows our best interests. She tries to develop us into the players that we are today. It took some time for me personally. Freshman, sophomore years, I didn’t have as many minutes [as I wanted]but I knew I could step up.”

Coaching excellence is expressed in many forms, sometimes theatrical and emotional, sometimes stern and stone faced. For Fulks, the most common expression is a calm smile, arms crossed, slowly pacing the sideline.

Kellione explains, “She’s really skilled in knowing what each player needs, and she changes her coaching to that, and she fits each of us. She’ll do it in practice, she’ll do it in games.”

Fulks’ journey has taken her from Capital University where she played under legendary coach Dixie Jeffers when the then-Crusaders made the 1997 final four, to the west coast where she built Lewis and Clark into a contender, then back to the Midwest when she took over Transylvania in 2014.

Along the way, she has proven herself an innovator and a community builder. The Pioneers emphasize the power of positive touching, so there are plenty of high fives and fist bumps throughout the game. While their opponents run through the traditional shooting drills in pregame warmups, Transylvania is using exercise bands and other equipment that hones hand-eye coordination. To prepare for CNU’s full-court press, Transylvania’s starting lineup practiced 5-on-12.

And the backdrop behind Fulk is a wave of maroon-and-black clad Transylvania fans who filled their section of the stands and more in Saturday’s title game. Some of them wear bat wings, others spell out BATS, BATS, BATS, BATS during timeouts.

When asked about her own “journey to joy,” she demurs and deflects credit to her staff.

“I’m just really grateful. There’s just so much time, energy and effort by so many people. Tim Whitesel, he and I have coached together for 19 years. He was an unbelievable mentor back when I was making plenty of mistakes and helped guide me the entire way. Our current coaching staff, there’s no doubt they could do this without me, I’m very confident of that.”

If that sounds like false modesty, it is not. Fulks is plain-spoken and honest when fielding media questions. During last year’s tournament, when asked if Transylvania was feeling any fatigue late in their Sweet 16 win over Mary Hardin-Baylor, the Pioneers players gave the answer you expect. No, sir, fatigue was not an issue. We were fine.

Fulks stepped in and calmly explained that, yes, they were tired, because their team did not have many close games that forced the starters to play a tense 40 minutes. Fulks had a similarly honest assessment of why this Pioneers’ team won three more games than last year’s team that lost at home to Trine in the Elite 8.

“I think they are just slightly better at defending and on the boards. This was a team that was able to lock down on the defensive end.”

The plainspoken truth is that Transylvania probably never fully got the respect that it deserved as it rampaged through the regular season. As is often the case with teams that dominate conferences without a history of NCAA Tournament success, there were lingering questions whether the Pioneers were as good as their lopsided margins of victory suggested. Sure, the Pioneers are whatever-and-0, but who have they really beaten? Transylvania was ranked No. 2 in the country and passed over for the top ranking twice when the team in front of them lost.

The Pioneers wiped away any concerns regarding their strength of schedule by scoring convincing wins over nationally-ranked Millikin, Ohio Northern, New York University and Smith. Even when Christopher Newport – also unbeaten and ranked No. 1 – pulled even with Transylvania, it never felt like the Pioneers were going to fully lose control.

Fulks is too gracious to play the ‘no one believed in us card too hard,’ other than noting at the top of her postgame press conference that “they could never be ranked No. 1 this year, and we kind of joked about it and said we wanted to be No. 1 at the end.”

That will be yet another accolade at the end of this season’s joyful journey for Fulks and her Pioneers.

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