Warner, OK- Jahcoree Ealy was seen as the necessary finishing piece for the Connors State men's basketball team.
All he had to do was return following a frustrating pandemic-impacted year where the Cowboys fell short of their traditional expectations.
But thanks to COVID and the extra year of eligibility it brought, he had that chance. It just took a yes.
Connors teammate Jordan Tillmon went to work on him.
Tillmon would see Ealy over the summer. The two Arkansas natives would talk by phone and on occasion, meet up for hoops in Pine Bluff, where Tillmon is from — Ealy hailed out of Demascus, Ark.
"He makes big plays and can make a lot of things happen out there," Tillmon said. "From the end of the season going forward I was telling him I needed him back to make this run, and we did."
With Ealy back, Connors (28-5) won the Region II championship last weekend and on Monday opens play in the NJCAA National Tournament in Hutchinson, Kan., against the tournament host team.
Ealy had an option to transfer to Arkansas-Little Rock. He opted to return to Warner.
"Really, I'm going to give it to my teammate Jordan," Ealy said. "We're real close, he always said if you come back we can do this. I did, and it helped me to step up and become more of a leader, be able to talk more and get involved with my team. I'm shooting better, all types of things. It was the right decision to make."
Finding his way here wasn't easy. Coming out of high school, averaging 16-17 points a game, Ealy received no offers. He enrolled in a prep school and ended up being found there by both Connors and Eastern.
"Coming out of high school I was done with basketball. I went to prep school then came here and got some restitution. I chose here and I knew I could be a better player," Ealy said.
Connors coach Bill Muse knew the lay of the land and made his own push for Ealy into the summer, especially after bringing in a 6-foot-10 transfer from UCO in D.J. Basey, and a trio of All-State players in Marquel Sutton out of Tulsa Rogers and Xavier Glenn from Bixby and also Muskogee's Xavier Brown.
Muse's own track record of what is now 11 national tourney trips and producing 81 Division I players in 29 seasons was what won Ealy over to begin his journey, so Muse had his trust on what could still be.
"With the transfer portal, even though we (as a junior college) don't have it, you've got to recruit your own players in the summer time because they can at any time go on and do anything they want," said Muse. "So I told 'Coree, with this being my 11th year to get to Hutch, I know as a player if you make the national tournament, all kinds of doors open. I once even saw a team manager get an offer up there because he worked his butt off in the tournament and got noticed.
"He saw what we had built through our recruiting class and I think that sold him. And it will help both of these guys. There's a lot of college assistants who in spite of all the postseason tournaments will squeeze in there for the opening two days and see everybody."
The 6-2 Tillmon switched to point guard and Ealy, at 6-6, is a shooting guard. Both made All-Region, Ealy for a second consecutive year. Tillmon averaged 16.9 points, 5.4 assists and 4.9 rebounds, Ealy 15..2 points, 4.3 assists and 6 rebounds.
They're part of a starting five that all average in double figures — the 6-7 Sutton at 16.0, 6-4 Glenn at 12.3 and Basey at 10.2.
After a disappointing 1-3 start in conference play, the Cowboys recovered and are peaking at the right time.
"I thought at the start we were talented at every position," Muse said. "Our starting five is talented and they all play well together. We don't have a deep bench but there's guys there who have come off the bench and contributed."
Greg Johnson at 6-4 averages 6.1 points and had a strong game in the championship win last week. Mason Alexander at 6-8 averages 6.0 points. Brown, the ex-Rougher, averages 6.0 points but won't play in the national tournament. He had surgery from appendicitis and has not been medically cleared.
The assistant coaches will be there Monday. So will no doubt be the largest first-round attendance with Hutchinson (25-8) being the opponent.
""We''ll definitely have the whole gym against us," Tillmon said, who is also looking for an offer to continue his career. "But between the lines that crowd can only do so much, so it's up to us to get the job done."
Thanks to a lot of talking, he'll have the chance to do that with a fellow Arkansan.