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Sports >  Gonzaga basketball

Delta Devils pile up miles waiting for home opener

Mississippi Valley State coach Andre Payne stresses effort on the court and in the classroom. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Mississippi Valley State coach Andre Payne stresses effort on the court and in the classroom. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Losing nine games in a row is never an easy pill to swallow.

But the winless Delta Devils from Itta Bena, Mississippi, have had to get around another obstacle this season – being on the road for almost two months.

Mississippi Valley State has been traveling to play since its season opener at Northwestern on Nov. 11. The Delta Devils won’t play at home until Jan. 7.

“Being on the road this long is definitely a factor, but no excuses. Our schedule is our schedule and we just have to work and get better,” Delta Devils head coach Andre Payne said.

Playing on the road for the first 14 games is tough enough for any team, but Mississippi Valley State has faced some tough competitors so far. The team’s schedule includes some of the AP Top 25 ranked teams, including No. 13 Indiana, No. 25 West Virginia and Michigan State, which was ranked No. 13 when the Delta Devils visited on Nov. 18. The Spartans dropped out of the poll earlier this week.

Mississippi Valley State’s 97-63 loss to the No. 8 Bulldogs on Thursday night was the fourth ranked team the Delta Devils have battled. They have one more waiting for them on Dec. 20 at No. 19 Iowa State.

“For a team that hasn’t had a home game yet and don’t have one until Jan. 7, it’s inspiring and remarkable how hard they play. They keep getting after it,” Gonzaga head coach Mark Few said.

“It’s a different beast when you play on this level,” Payne said. “ I don’t sugarcoat it. I tell them, ‘Hey, this is the toughest Division 1 schedule of preseason there is. You’re playing against some of the top teams in the nation … but what you have to do is play harder than them, give more effort than them and bring your A game and hope that you can force them into a C game.’ ”

The Delta Devils brought their best efforts against Gonzaga and stayed within a few points before the Bulldogs pulled away for good midway through the first half.

“I think that this team (Gonzaga) is definitely a true top 10 team. They actually have more to throw at you than Indiana,” Payne said.

Spokane was the last stop for the Delta Devils before they head home for 10 days for finals before traveling back to Washington to play Seattle on Dec. 15. Mississippi Valley State has only traveled back home for a day or two at a time before the team had to leave again for another road game.

But even with all that travel, Payne said his players, who mostly take online classes, stay on top of their studies.

“Coach Payne, he makes us study hard and stay up on our books when we’re up in the hotel, and even sometimes in the airport. It gets kind of chaotic, you know, but he gives us a chance to kind of maintain (our grades),” senior guard Rashaan Surles said.

“When I walked in (the locker room), I didn’t talk about the game. I talked about final exams,” Payne said after the game. “I said, ‘This is what we got to do. We’ve got to get back to the hotel, we’re going to order some wings and we’re going to start studying.’ ”

Payne said he makes his players study whenever there is time, which sometimes means opening books on the airplane when they’re traveling to another school. But when the team takes a break from studies, Surles said the down time gives the Delta Devils a chance to relax together and get to know each other better than a lot of other teams.

“We do a lot of bonding. Every team has their bonding time. We just have a little bit more than others,” Surles said.

Payne would describe the bonding time among the players and coaches as a way of building a home away from home.

“We’re a big family,” Payne said. “At the end of the day they love each other, and those guys there, I would go to war with them any day because they don’t know how to stop. They’re going to play continuously hard every second of the game, no matter what.”

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