Warner’s team completed a perfect postseason run Saturday with a 90-87 overtime victory against Oklahoma City in the title game of the NCCAA Division I Championship tournament.
“I’ve never been on a team that won their last game (of the season),” said Warner during a phone interview on Saturday night shortly after his team cut down the nets in the Grace College gym in Winona Lake, Ind.
“It was one of the most special moments I’ve had as a coach — if not the most special.”
Warner led the Hawks to the doorstep of a national title last spring, but their quest came up short when they suffered a loss in the NAIA semifinals.
This time, the Hawks completed the mission, and registered the first national championship in the program’s history.
“I am happy for our team, happy for Shorter and happy for Rome,” said Warner, who was a multi-sport star at Darlington and went on to play basketball at UGA.
The title run put an exclamation point on a flux season for the Hawks, as the school’s athletic programs are transitioning to NCAA Division II.
“This season was so unique — with it being a transition year for us and with us losing CJ Davis (to an injury),” said Warner. “It was a year filled with adversity, and it was really special to see our team gel and peek at the right time.”
Warner pushed all the right postseason buttons over the past two weeks while leading the Hawks on a 6-0 run through the Madness.
They won three straight games in the South Region last week, and then followed that with three more wins this week in Indiana.
Shorter, which carried a No. 5 seed into the Championship event, defeated Mid-America Christian 101-89 in the quarterfinals on Wednesday, and then upset top-seeded Fresno Pacific, 104-95, in Thursday’s semifinals.
In Saturday’s game against Oklahoma City, Shorter forward Walter Hill hit a game-trying 3-pointer at the buzzer to force overtime, and the Hawks took command in the extra session.
“We felt fortunate to be in overtime,” said Warner. “We got two really good looks in the last 10 seconds. The unsung hero of the whole thing was Kenny Leverette; he got two huge offensive rebounds (on that final possession) and kicked the ball back out to give us another shot, and Walter hit an unbelievably tough shot.
“Then Anthony (Banks) absolutely dominated overtime,” said about the 6-foot-7 forward, who scored 11 points in the extra period. “I was just really proud of the way we executed.”
Warner said he couldn’t pinpoint the exact moment when his team galvanized this season, but said the Hawks became an unselfish group as the season progressed.
“They started playing for each other — and when that happens, special things can happen,” he said.
Warner said he wanted that same attitude to be the theme of Saturday’s contest, win or lose.
“I told the team before the game that this game wouldn’t complete us as people and it wouldn’t break us as people,” said Warner. “What we wanted to do was to go out and play in a way that would honor God — and hopefully we did that.”
Warner said the postgame celebration was, in a way, bittersweet.
“It was kind of a chilling moment to realize that this group had just played its final game as a team,” he said. “I guess we will spend the next 48 to 72 hours (reflecting on it).”
And for the first time in his career, Warner will go into the postseason on a winning note.
“I’m exhausted … but I’m happy,” he said.