Bellarmine too much for MSU
Benedetti scores 21 to lead Knights into semifinals
SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- Justin Benedetti has been waiting a long time to play in the NCAA Division II Elite Eight.
He finally got his chance Wednesday afternoon at the MassMutual Center and the Bellarmine senior guard made the most of his moment in the spotlight.
Benedetti, one of the driving forces behind the success of the No. 2 Knights (31-2) this season, torched Midwestern State for 21 points and propelled his team into the national semifinals with a 70-64 victory.
Nothing came easy against the quicker and more athletic Mustangs (25-9), who took a 10-2 lead early but went back and forth with the Knights the rest of the way in a showdown where both teams exhausted every ounce of effort they had.
Bellarmine trailed 37-35 at halftime and was down most of the second half until stealing the momentum late to seal the deal.
Benedetti was never concerned. His team has been tested in the past, especially coming out of the rugged Midwest Region, and it even had an exhibition win against Xavier under its belt.
"We are always in games," Benedetti said. "We always keep fighting and give it our all. It came down to execution. We were happy we made plays at the end and found a way to get a tremendous win.”
Benedetti helped his team late by hitting clutch free throws. He hit 3-of-4 during one stretch late in the game, cutting Midwestern’s lead to 58-57, and it was hardly a surprise that Benedetti was at the line in crunch time.
Getting to the line has become an added strength to Benedetti’s game, and that fact is not lost on head coach Scott Davenport.
Benedetti was 5-of-6 from the line in the win over the Mustangs, who were the only team here not playing in the Elite Eight for the first time. Benedetti came in as an 83.3 percent free-throw shooter.
“He is not just a perimeter shooter,” Davenport said. “He has learned how to drive to the ball and get to the line. He is a tough matchup for any team and has done a great job of becoming a complete player.
Benedetti played his high school basketball in the Hoosier State, shining at Providence High School where he captured the attention of Division I coaches.
But he missed most of his senior season because of a torn meniscus in his left knee and ended up at Bellarmine.
Benedetti came into this game averaging 13 points per outing and had hit 54 treys on the season.
He was his usual self on this day, drilling an early trey that sliced the Midwestern lead to 14-9. His two free throws with under five minutes to go cut the Mustangs’ advantage to 28-27 and he came up with two big shots before halftime that kept the Knights within striking distance.
Benedetti made a layup and scored on a putback as Bellarmine went into halftime trailing only 37-35, not bad considering the Mustangs capitalized on several second chances and often played above the rim.
They came up with four dunks in the opening half, including one by David Terrell in which he went up over Braydon Hobbs and drew a foul as he dunked the ball. That basket and free throw put the Mustangs in front 35-29 but did little to rattle the confidence of the Knights.
The second half was just as tight, but what Bellarmine was able to do to gain an edge was crash the boards and clamp down on defense.
Benedetti helped the cause, grabbing five boards, while defending his heart out to help cool off the Mustangs, who torched the nets for 61.5 percent shooting in the opening half but shot just 41.4 percent in the final 20 minutes.
“We did not let them finish shots and we were able to do a better job of getting rebounds,” Davenport said. “They are a very athletic team and they played their hearts out. We were fortunate enough to win.”
This loss cut like a knife for the Mustangs.
They lost in the quarterfinal last year as well, falling 92-88 to St. Cloud State, but seemed to have magic on their side after beating three nationally ranked teams in their South Central regional tournament, including fourth-ranked Central Oklahoma (73-66).
“We put a lot into this season, so much time and so much effort” senior guard Chris Hagan said, fighting back tears as he spoke into the mircrophone during the press conference. “You hate to see it end. But I love my teammates and I am thankful I had an opportunity to play here.”
Midwestern head coach Grant McCasland said his team simply was unable to step up when it mattered most.
“We didn’t capitalize on turnovers and we missed some big shots,” McCasland said. We had a few possessions where we could have come up with a big play and didn’t do it. It got us on our heels.”
The Mustangs shot 50.9 percent from the field and Hagan paved the way with 24 points. Charlie Logan and Darrick Thomas scored 10 points apiece.
Bellarmine shot 53.1 percent from the floor, and while Benedetti was tough enough to guard, he wasn’t the only one giving Midwestern a headache.
All-American guard Jeremy Kendle clicked for 20 points, and Chris Dowe, who made two free throws after being fouled on a layup attempt to put the Knights ahead 62-58 with less than two minutes to play, finished with 11 points.
But back to Benedetti for a moment. He has been one of the team’s leaders all season and he has been dreaming for a long time about having a shot to win a national championship.
The Knights are now one step closer to making that dream a reality.
“I’ve always wanted to be a pat of something like this,” Benedetti said. “I’ve worked hard to get to this point and I credit my coaches for helping me to become a good basketball player.”