Trine: Start of the journey

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Although only seven played for Trine in the title game, the Thunder program has its fundamentals instilled from top to bottom.
Photo by Steve Frommell,

By Ryan Scott

FORT WAYNE, Indiana — Almost everyone around here — coaches, media, event staff, most everyone — picked Hampden-Sydney to win. It’s not that Trine was less in any way. They’ve been top ranked all season and looked really good winning their semifinal on Thursday. A number of people said they could see the game go either way, but when push came to shove, most everyone was going with the No. 1 ranked team from Virginia.

They had experience — with seven guys who’ve been key contributors for three seasons. They’ve not had the bumps in the road Trine had, and they were riding a lot of momentum into the championship game.

But you know who didn’t pick Hampden-Sydney to win? 4,000-plus fans and one team from 40 miles up the road.

In front of a Division III Men’s Basketball Championship Weekend record crowd of 4,546, mostly blue-clad Trine fans, the Thunder claimed the national title with a 69-61 win over Hampden-Sydney and proved all the experts wrong.

It’s not that Trine was less in any way. They’ve been a top ranked team all season, but they’ve taken a few more losses than expected and don’t have one standout player. It’s a team effort and it has been from the beginning. Coach Brooks Miller has built a program for the long haul, even if it wasn’t always apparent how things would come together.

Trine has been building to this moment since the COVID season, when, being in Indiana, they had fewer restrictions and were able to play almost a full season — including a trip to Virginia to play the only other undefeated team that season, Randolph-Macon , who’d win the national title the next year.

Brent Cox and Emmanuel Megnanglo were the connective tissue from that team to this one, imbuing the team with confidence, leadership, and a sense of foundation upon which to build and move forward.

Megnaglo reflected on his time at Trine thus far. “It’s an amazing journey. I came to a program I’d never heard about. Going through the years, all the changes, guys coming and going, it was amazing to see how much our togetherness in general has stayed from 2021 until now. Those guys text us and come to our games. We’ve established a connection, not just as a team, but as a community.”

Megnanglo, the MIAA Defensive Player of the Year, missed several games in the middle of the season after cutting his hand preparing Thanksgiving dinner. Trine struggled defensively without him and as he re-integrated into the squad, but they put it all together when it mattered in March, receiving hosting privileges the first two weekends and, with the championship weekend in their backyard, essentially throughout the tournament.

At 22-4 last year, Trine fell in the MIAA championship game and was left out of the NCAA tournament in a year in which it was particularly difficult to earn an at-large bid.

“Last year was interesting. We made up our mind that we were going to put in more work and make sure we came out with the win in the end, unfortunately we didn’t get that done.” Megnaglo said.

That setback fueled a new season — many players talked about a renewed mindset and a focus on intensity. On the court, they needed to improve team speed and depth. Those extra elements came in the form of three transfers, brothers Fred and Cortez Garland and Drew Moore, all of whom ended up in the starting lineup.

Miller explains: “These three young men are tremendously mature. They understood the situation they were coming into and what needed to be done, what sacrifices needed to be made. It was going to take time, but it was going to take getting to know each other and respecting each other. I can’t explain it. You had to be there. Even if you were there, it was such a phenomenon how this group galvanized. It’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done.”

The new additions worked pretty seamlessly into the established Trine culture and the mixture was magic. Trine becomes the first Division III men’s basketball team to win the title in their first NCAA Tournament appearance since UW-Platteville in 1991.

Cortez Garland was named Most Outstanding Player of the tournament, but as is typical with this Trine squad, it was a group effort. The Thunder surely would not have even made the championship game without the contributions of Aiden Smylie and Nate Tucker, who were both also named to the All-Tournament team.

The duo shot a combined 7-for-9 with 18 rebounds in Trine’s semifinal win over 30-1 Trinity (Conn.), and 9-for-15 shooting in the championship, scoring 25 of Trine’s 69 points, in addition to playing bigger than their size down low.

Down two at the half, Trine opened the second period with an 11-2 run and sparked by seven straight points from Cortez Garland, the Thunder kept the pressure on and although Hampden-Sydney kept hitting shots and pressuring the ball, they were never able to come all the way back.

This is the epitome of Trine basketball.

“This weekend in particular, we really accomplished everything that we’ve been working on this year in terms of sticking to those fundamentals. Share the ball, attack it, and go get it,” said Miler. “Everything we do, we’ve got to do together. Respect each other. It’s important these guys understand that they’re powerful in the things they can do, if they do things the right way and they respect everyone as people.”

The results on the floor are the culmination of the culture and principles instilled off it. Miller is very consistent in his messaging and insists that his team know and respect each other. Trine basketball is built for more than just this national championship; the intent is to remain a community into the future.

“This is not the end with Cortez. This is just the beginning between him and I,” says Miller. “In this building tonight I had a high school coach, a college coach, ten college teammates, high school teammates. It’s just the beginning of the support system you have that stays with you forever.”

Trine has reached the top of the mountain, but in their minds it’s just the beginning of the journey.

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