GLENDALE, Ariz. – Ryan Edwards never won a Montana high school basketball championship during his career with Kalispell Glacier. Monday night, he has a chance to join a prestigious group as an NCAA men’s basketball champion.
Edwards, who still ranks in the top five of Kalispell Glacier’s all-time scorers and rebounders, will suit up in Monday night’s NCAA championship game for Gonzaga, as the Bulldogs tip off against defending national runner-up North Carolina.
“It’s just crazy. We had a team-building thing going into this season, we went camping, and we were all sitting in our tents talking and saying, ‘Guys, we can really do this.’ I’ve never really felt this way on a team over my four years and I knew something was special from the beginning,” said Edwards. “Our record can prove it, we’ve been getting the job done and I think we deserve to be where we are today.
“All the work we’ve put in for the last seven months finally paid off. I know my role on the team, I know I’m not going to get my minutes, so my job is to get the crowd involved and get the team as amped up as possible. If I can make my team better every day and get the people around me amped up, then I feel like I’m doing my job.”
Edwards, the redshirt junior, was an all-state athlete for Kalispell Glacier and became the winningest athlete in school history his senior season. Standing more than 7-feet tall and pushing 300 pounds, Edwards was a force Montana rarely sees. But in Division I college basketball an athlete of that stature is hardly unheard of.
Minutes have been few and far between for Edwards, who played 17 games his freshman season and, after redshirting his junior campaign, found the floor in 31 games just last year. Still, not being in the game during crunch time has been an adjustment.
“It was tough. My first two years I was really competing for the spot,” he said. “With Przemek’s (Karnowski) injury and then him coming back, plus me playing behind Domantas (Sabonis) and a bunch of NBA guys, it was a tough time for me. But going into my junior year and this year, I’ve more embraced it and I just want to make my teammates better. If they’re going to be the ones on the floor, they need to get the job done.”
Karnowski certainly has. Edwards’ competition in practice, the Polish senior has totaled 137 wins, the most in NCAA history. Edwards jokes he can take partial credit for the battles on the practice courts over the years.
“It’s awesome. He’s my best friend, I hang out with him every single day. My first two years I absolutely hated him; he was my worst enemy,” Edwards admitted. “Then we started getting along and I think I’ve helped him grow as a player more these last two years than I did my first two years. We would get mad at each other rather than trying to make one another better. Now, we’ve figured it out and we’ll be working out and my job is to get him to be the best player he can be.”
The Final Four has been a whirlwind for Edwards and his teammates. The Zags have media obligations, practices, film studies and curfews. But they are still college kids and the program has found time to let them enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
“We had Kobe Bryant come and talk to us on the second day we were here,” Edwards said. “We went to a fan fest thing they have going on, it wasn’t open to the public, just our teams. We were able to do some fun activities together. We’re a really close group, there are no cliques, everyone gets along with everyone and it definitely makes it a much better experience.”
Following Saturday night’s Final Four victory over South Carolina, television cameras captured Edwards bull-rushing the court, leaping into the air to celebrate the milestone with friends. A true team player, he still has a soft spot for his friends and family back in Big Sky Country.
“I just want to thank everyone, my entire hometown community for the support. I get a lot of love from back home,” Edwards said of the Kalispell area and Montana in general. “People I haven’t talked to in a while have been hitting me up, wishing me the best of luck and it’s awesome. I want to say thank you to everyone back home and I wouldn’t be where I am without my head coach from high school, a lot of my teachers. They all got me to where I am today.”
By the end of this day, Edwards may again be jumping, high-fiving and smiling for the “One Shining Moment” cameras as an NCAA national champion.
“Oh yeah. I’ll be going nuts,” Edwards said on the possibility of a Gonzaga win. “I’ll be jumping the highest I’ve ever jumped in my life.”