North to Alaska

Southeast coach Scott Edgar comforted Terrick Willoughby during the final minutes of the Redhawks' 78-51 loss to Drake during a first-round game at the BP Top of the World Classic in Fairbanks, Alaska.

FAIRBANKS, Alaska -- In a state where dog mushing is the No. 1 sport and a town where it seems that sled dogs outnumber people 2-1, Southeast Missouri State coach Scott Edgar just couldn't help but use an Iditarod analogy.

The Iditarod is 1,000-mile dog sled race across Alaska, and a musher, the person who commands the team, needs a cohesive, strong, confident brood of huskies to be competitive.

The same could be said for a team of mostly freshmen basketball players, Edgar said Thursday on the eve of his team's first game in the BP Top of the World Classic.

"I just need to be careful about when to push them and when to pat them on the back, kind of like those little doggies when they're tired but you still want them to go a little bit farther," Edgar said.

A total of seven NCAA Division I schools traveled here to compete with Division II Alaska-Fairbanks for the top spot in the 11-year-old tournament.

Southeast Missouri State's Michael Rembert fired up a shot Friday against Drake at the Carlson Center in Fairbanks, Alaska. Southeast lost 78-51. (JILLIAN ROGERS ~ Special to the Southeast Missourian)

This year is Southeast Missouri State's Top of the World debut, though Edgar is making his third appearance at the Fairbanks tournament.

If nothing else, the team's trek north will allow the players and coaches to get to know each other a little better.

"When I leave here, no matter what happens, I have to sell the mindset that this was win-win situation," Edgar said. "The most challenging part of my job is to have a continual positive attitude and work ethic. We want to develop some swagger."

Friday night, however, the Redhawks didn't have much to swagger about after their first game of the tournament.

They fell to Drake University 78-51 in front of nearly 3,000 fans at the Carlson Center. The Bulldogs dominated, shooting 50 percent from the field while the Redhawks drained just 30.6 percent.

Southeast Missouri State videographer Brandon Reese filmed local high school students cheering for the Redhawks as they arrived in Fairbanks on Wednesday for the BP Top of the World Classic.

"It was our offense that got us in trouble," Edgar said. "We just weren't getting the easy baskets."

Down 41-27 at the half, Southeast Missouri State was in hole by as much as 30 points in the second half.

Following the opening loss at Arkansas, Edgar is chalking this up to another learning experience. With only two returning NCAA Division I players on the team, beating Drake and its 11 Division I veterans was a lofty goal at best.

"Not only do they have the experience, they're probably the most versatile team in the tournament," Edgar said. "We're still trying to find the right combinations; the right pieces."

Though they filled in the gap to within nine points in the first half, the Redhawks faced a double-digit deficit for the majority of the game after falling behind 10-0 in the opening minutes.

Fairbanks high school student Megan Muniz received an autograph from Southeast freshman Jimmy Drew on Wednesday evening at the Fairbanks International Airport. The team arrived in Fairbanks late after missing a connection in Anchorage.

"Having a young team with five or six freshmen and not a lot of experience is tough," said junior guard Paul Paradoski, who had seven points. "But coach always says you can't make a 13-point basket, so it's just chipping away at it.

"Mainly, we need to keep our heads up, and the young guys we've got are doing a good job of playing Division I basketball and getting used to it. But when we get down quick, we need to keep our heads up and chip away at it and not force things like we have in the last two games."

The Southeast crew arrived Wednesday in the Golden Heart City travel weary due to a prolonged trip after a missed connection in Anchorage. At the airport, they were greeted with a power failure and a gaggle of local high school students with banners and a homemade cheer for the Redhawks.

"Halfway through the airport we heard the kids hollering 'SEMO! SEMO!' so that was really neat," Edgar said.

Luckily for the Redhawks, the temperature had warmed up to a balmy 12 below zero.

Southeast Missouri State's Michael Rembert fired up a shot Friday against Drake at the Carlson Center in Fairbanks, Alaska. Southeast Missouri State lost 78-51 in its tournament opener in a game that ended in the wee hours of Saturday morning Central time.

"I think my eyelids just froze shut," shouted a team member on the way from the terminal to the bus.

A pep rally was planned but it had to be cancelled after some Redhawks schedule changes. Pep rally or not, Edgar said he can see all the pride that thhe people of Fairbanks have for the event and he appreciates the hard work involved in hosting such a large event.

While some of the other teams tried dog mushing and made trips to North Pole, just a quick 20-minute drive from Fairbanks, the crew from Southeast Missouri State has done little else than practice for and play in the tournament.

"This time, I really wanted to make it more of an experience, something more than just basketball," Edgar said. "Just traveling here became an adventure."

And the cold temperatures have pretty much kept the team indoors.

"When it's minus-15, the only thing you want to do is find the closest door and stay inside," Edgar said.

A quick trip to the local mall was about it as far as sightseeing goes, although they might have some time today since they don't leave Alaska until Monday.

"Just spending time with each other has been nice for us," Edgar said. "They're a good group. I like my team a lot more than they think I do."