SHERIDAN — Many college students count down the days until spring break. The majority can’t wait to get dismissed from their last class and embark on a vacation to unwind from the stressors of school.
The North Carolina Central University men’s basketball team didn’t want any part of their spring break. The Eagles wanted a Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference championship and a ticket to the NCAA Tournament.
They accomplished that this past weekend.
“We just figured that if we won, we’ll keep going, and if we lose, we’ll go home,” NCCU’s Pablo Rivas said. “Nobody wanted to go on spring break yet. We just did our thing, we just took it one possession at time and got the ‘W.’”
Rivas played at Sheridan College a couple years back, and he’s one of three athletes with a Sheridan connection competing in the NCAA Tournament.
Robbi Ryan and PJ Savoy represent the other two. The former Lady Bronc, Ryan, is currently a sophomore at Arizona State and Savoy, another former General suits up for Florida State.
Rivas and the Eagles surprised at their conference tournament. After an underwhelming regular season, NCCU entered the MEAC Tournament as the No. 6 seed. The Eagles, as a result, needed to win four games in four days. The journey featured top-seeded Hampton in the conference championship game, a team that dominated NCCU in the two teams’ only regular-season matchup.
That fact alone was motivation enough for the Eagles.
“We had something to prove because they really beat us at home; blew us out on TV,” Rivas said. “That’s something we didn’t really tolerate. We talked about that for a few weeks.”
Rivas poured in a game-high 22 points in the title game and got named MEAC Tournament Most Valuable Player for his success over four straight days.
“I went into a different mode,” Rivas said.
The Eagles battle Texas Southern in the First Four of the NCAA Tournament Wednesday evening.
If NCCU can get past the Tigers in the First Four, the Eagles would travel from Dayton, Ohio, to Nashville, Tennessee, to play No. 1-seeded Xavier in the same bracket quadrant as Savoy.
Savoy and the Seminoles earned a No. 9 seed and will play No. 8-seeded Missouri Friday.
“The ultimate goal for this season was to get into the tournament and even get down the line and win the whole thing,” Savoy said. “We are still heading in the right direction.”
Savoy played at Sheridan College for one season. He and Rivas played on the same team for current head coach Matt Hammer, and both spoke very highly of their time at the base of the Bighorn Mountains.
Savoy connected on a couple buzzer beaters inside the Bruce Hoffman Golden Dome, and Rivas simply enjoyed competing against National Junior College Athletics Association power, and rival, Gillette College.
“I miss those days,” Rivas said.
Unlike Rivas and Savoy, Ryan hails from Sheridan and isn’t too far removed from donning the Sheridan blue and yellow. Her impressive high school career included a couple third-place finishes at the state tournament, a 50-point outburst against Gillette and a Gatorade Player of the Year honor to boot.
Ryan played in every game as a freshman last season for Arizona State and averaged 6.5 points per game, but she still remembers the big adjustment she had to make going from Wyoming high school basketball to the Pac-12 Conference.
“There’s a big learning curve from high school to your freshman year of college,” Ryan said. “My coaches and teammates help out a lot and I’m blessed to be part of a program like ASU.”
Even amid the adjustment period, Ryan has helped guide the Sun Devils to a tournament appearance in two consecutive seasons. She averages 10 points per contest this season, earning her honorable mention recognition on both the All-Pac-12 team and All-Defensive team. She will look to keep the impressive season going Saturday against No. 10-seeded Nebraska.
Ryan loves the outpouring of support she receives from her hometown and home state while living more than 1,100 miles away from home. Rivas and Savoy, likewise, have moved far away from Sheridan but still remember and hold dear the memories and connections they made in Northeast Wyoming.
Basketball season may be over for most of Wyoming, but in Sheridan, the madness is just getting started thanks to a few local stars who are dancing through March.