When Dedrick Basile's 3-pointer with two-tenths of a second remaining lifted Cal State Bakersfield (yes that’s an actual NCAA D-1 squad) to a a 57-54 victory over No.1 seed New Mexico State in the Western Athletic Conference Tournament title game and the first NCAA Tournament appearance in school history, it was further affirmation that March Madness is in full swing.
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Cal State Bakersfield (24-8) is the kind of team, with the type of players that become darlings of the NCAA Tournament. These kids got game, but most of the country probably doesn’t know about them. When you glance up and down the Roadrunners’ roster you see guys from out west; Texas, Cali, Colorado. They comprise the core demographics of the squad.
However a closer look at the roster and the senior leaders of this team, 6-9 center Aly Ahmed from Egypt and 6-4 rebounding machine Kevin Mays from Queens, NY, are from different geographical planets, but are the heart and soul of the squad, the leading scorers and rebounders on the team.
While Egypt isn’t necessarily a breeding ground for NBA talent, Queens has seen its share of homegrown products become NBA players. Mays, though undersized and unheralded by most NBA scouts, is hoping that this tournament provides his senior year with every bit of excitement, opportunity and experience he’s ever dreamed of in a collegiate career that took him from Maryland Eastern Shore to Odessa Junior College to Cal State Bakersfield, where he lead the WAC Conference in rebounding as a junior (8.0 rpg).
Mays says his team got to this point as a No. 15 seed going against the mighty No. 2 seed Oklahoma Sooners today in a West Region’s first round matchup, because of its heart, hustle and humility.
“We got a lot of guys that brought into the system...we had a lot of talent here in the past but dudes were doing their own thing and everybody was worried about their numbers instead of having one common goal," Mays told TSL during a phone interview. "This team... a lot of guys can do different things. We have six or seven guys that can go for 20 on any night, but it’s just a more team, brotherhood type of pride and that's hard to find at this level.”
Roadrunners head coach Rod Barnes is no stranger to changing the culture of a university’s basketball program. Barnes coached Ole Miss for eight seasons, took the school to its first-ever NCAA Tournament win and in the 2000-01 season, he led Ole Miss to a school-record 27 wins and a trip to the Sweet 16, the deepest tourney conquest in school history.
"It was our night, our turn, our time," Barnes said after making the tournament. "It's been a fantastic year."
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Cal State Bakersfield had never beaten New Mexico State, losing their first 11 meetings, including twice during the regular season.The Roadrunners also had never played in a WAC tournament final until Saturday's game.
“The community and the campus have been going crazy about it they are loving it we are like stars back home now,” said Mays.
For Mays, who has taken a circuitous journey to the NCAA tournament, this year is a culmination of his hard work and maturity. He honed his game on the infamous playgrounds of O’Connor Park (OCP) in St. Albans Queens, where competition was intense and everybody balled with a purpose of becoming Kenny Smith or Kenny Anderson or Rafer “Skip to My Lou” Alston.
He’s hoping this NCAA tournament is his time to shine and capture the eye of pro scouts.
“My coach and I have talked about agents,” Mays told TSL, "but he wanted me to stay focused on our season, with my academics and playing. Some people can get caught up in post college life and it takes away from the team. After the season I will think about those things. Of course I want the shot to go to the NBA...it's definitely a dream of mine. Right now I'm just focused on Oklahoma and doing my thing and making some noise in the Tournament.”
The senior, who averaged 12.5 points per game, says the fact that he rebounds beyond his size, but hasn’t put up big scoring nights, shouldn’t be a detriment to his chances at the next level.
“I would like to think of myself as a hard nosed tough dude. Pro teams need those guys,” Mays said. “I always had ability to score. In high school I averaged 19 and 12. I am versatile and can do whatever it is a team needs from me. If they want me to score the buckets I can do that. If they need me to play different positions, my toughness and versatility and defensive ability allows me to play so many positions."
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“Ever since I was young I figured out that every team is going to have a guy that wants to shoot, so I figure if they shoot it, I’ll go get the rebound which makes it easier to get my points. I can score without a play being drawn for me, when it is, it’s that much better. Just leading the team and motivating guys is my No. 1 role," Mays pridefully asserted.
His unselfishness and leadership has been a crucial part of the Roadrunner’ unprecedented postseason success.
As an undersized post player, Mays’ size will be his biggest detriment when trying to capture the eye of an NBA scout on Friday. But he dismisses any hesitation related to his size.
“I’ve always been going up against bigger guys and I’ve been handling them since I played in the school yards as a kid,” Mays told TSL. “I treat every player the same.”
Mays went to Campus Magnet HS, played under legendary Coach Charles Granby and then transferred to a military school in Wisconsin.
His first year at Magnet, they had a bunch of seniors and Mays says, “I wasn’t feeling the politics, so I had to go someplace else to get my opportunity to play.”
Mays says Wisconsin supplied the basketball opportunities and discipline he needed to become more well-rounded and focused as a student, person and basketball player. After high school, his first stop was Maryland Eastern Shore, where he averaged 13.3 points per game as a freshman.He eventually ended up at Cal State Bakersfield, where Mays says, “he wanted to help turn a program around.”
He’s certainly done that in his two years at the university and now as a senior hoping to prolong his basketball career, Mays will be facing his toughest competition of the season with a chance to make history if his team can pull off the upset.
“We want to make it to the Sweet Sixteen,” Mays said. "As far as playing against a nationally ranked team, I knew ever since I was a freshman and played UConn that I could play at the next level."
He will get his chance to prove it today.