Kentucky Christian's banners can't tell the whole story

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By John Herndon

GRAYSON - Seven. Seven national championship banners hang from the rafters of Lexington's Rupp Arena, but a fan with just an elementary knowledge of Kentucky - the state, not the basketball team looking for someone, anyone, that can score - history knows there's another in-state school with more.

Down in Owensboro, they like to remind you that Kentucky Wesleyan has eight national championship banners. That's mighty good but still two shy of Kentucky's best.

If you said the Kentucky Christian University women's program and its 10 national championships, consider yourself either a very lucky guesser or an astute fan of college basketball. And we mean college at any level. Kentucky Christian has established its dominance of the women's programs at National Christian College Athletic Association's Division II.

Oh, and lest we forget, the Kentucky Christian men's program is tied with UK for third place in the state's national championship standings.

Last Tuesday, I had the privilege of watching a double-header in Kentucky Christian's Lusby Center for the first time.

We will get this part out of the way. It's not likely that anyone on the court last week could suit up for the Kentucky Wildcats or Louisville Cardinals. In the men's game, it is the land of 6-foot-6 centers and 6-3 forwards. It is a game played in a gym smaller than most high school facilities. There are no athletic scholarships, few plane rides, no ESPN and no commercial time outs.

And, at Kentucky Christian, at least, there is actually a Christmas break.

"We play on Dec. 17 and I will send them home until January 4," says Kentucky Christian men's coach Will Shouse, an Anderson County High School graduate. "I have to send them home because the heat is turned off in the dorm and I would have to find money to feed them since the cafeteria is closed. I actually like the break. I can recruit as much as I want and the guys can get hungry for basketball with the time off. It allows the guys to stay away from burnout."

Think Billy Gillispie or Rick Pitino would go for that?

Still, there is a passion for the game that many fans find missing at the highest college level. It's kids playing for the love of the game, not an NBA tryout.

"When people ask me what level we play, I tell them to think Alice Lloyd," Shouse told me nearly a year ago.

Last Tuesday's opponent? Alice Lloyd, which made the trip from Knott County, deep in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky. The KIAC school was no match for Kentucky Christian's women, who rolled to a 29-point win. In the second game the Knight men rallied from a 10-point deficit to claim a 77-73 victory.

Both times, Kentucky Christian avenged an earlier loss. The women had lost by three, the men by four in double overtime when the teams made the trip to Pippa Passes back on Oct. 30.

Anderson County High graduate Kelli Young gave Kentucky Christian some quality minutes in relief of Ashley Baldwin, a nice player who had turned down some NCAA Division I scholarship offers to play for the Knights.

In the men's game, another Anderson grad, Eric McKee, played a vital role down the stretch, hitting several clutch baskets for the Knights. Patrolling the sidelines was yet another Anderson alum, Will Shouse, coaching the Knights.

That players of that caliber are suiting up for the Knights speaks volumes about the basketball programs. Young was the Most Valuable Player on her team at Anderson County High as a junior. Her 5-foot-3 stature probably scared a lot of schools away but Young was undoubtedly one of the better players in the Eighth Region her senior year.

In McKee, however, KCU got a gem, perhaps the first Kentucky all-stater to wind up at the school. McKee attended school at Lexington Community College for three years before heeding Shouse's call to Grayson.

If you can believe this, McKee, who sparked the interest of some major college programs, including Mississippi State, doesn't even start. He is Kentucky Christian's sixth man but playing starter minutes.

Suffice it to say, this is not a glorified high school game.

"No it's not," Shouse said. "Besides Eric, we have Akeem Scott, who had attended Campbellsville University and tried out for the Kentucky All-Star team (for the summer series against Indiana's best high school seniors)," Shouse says. "I challenge anyone to find an NAIA Division II guard better than Akeem Scott."

Scott will graduate this year but Shouse believes McKee will be the next in a long line of Knight greats. "Eric will be another Akeem," he says.

Most of all, though, it only took one night in Grayson to see what a small Christian school has done for a pair of Anderson County High grads.

Kelli Young has become a confident young woman both on and off the court. When coach Ron Arnett inserts her into the lineup, Young plays aggressively and with a purpose. Off the court, she is still has that broad smile and genuine humility that endeared her to many Lady Bearcat fans.

And she is quick to point out why she chose to go to school 125 miles from home. "I like it a lot," she says. "I like the environment and the Christian atmosphere."

As for McKee, there is little question about what heading up Interstate 64 has done for him. Let's be honest in saying that he has the ability to become a dominant player at the NCCAA level. However, the most important thing to note about Eric McKee last Tuesday was not that his deadly 3-point stroke is almost all the way back after a 3-year layoff. It wasn't that he can still leap with the best of them. It wasn't even that his tip-in gave Kentucky Christian its biggest lead of the night at 72-65.

It was his smile. "I found out what I wanted to do," McKee says.

He has the confidence of believing he can be successful at Kentucky Christian but the knowledge that he does not have to carry his team. "Everybody here is good," he says.

For my first basketball game at Grayson, I had packed a change of clothes, but unbeknownst to me, I had picked up the wrong shirt and had included a golf shirt embroidered with "Cincinnati Christian University."

Big mistake.

While I have a degree from that school, it is also Kentucky Christian's biggest athletic rival. Shouse and I good-naturedly kid each other about that fact.

But after watching the Kentucky Christian basketball programs up close and personal, I know they are winners far beyond what the abundance of championship banners could ever extol.

And I have become one of their fans.