SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — Jeremy Kendle attracts accolades as if he is a magnet. The Bellarmine star is the player of the year in the Great Lakes Valley Conference, one of the best in the Midwest Region and an NCAA Division II All-American.
Bottome line is that he is really good.
So when the senior guard put his team on his shoulders Thursday night in a national semifinal, ignoring the pain running through his body because of cramps in his legs, no one was surprised.
Kendle willed the Knights to a victory in a riveting showdown against Minnesota-Mankato at the MassMutual Center, scoring 18 points, including a 3-pointer late in the game that gave his team a two-point edge, 66-64.
In the end, his effort was enough to lift the No. 2 Knights (32-2) to an 81-74 victory and a spot in their first national championship game.
Despite a gutsy effort, Kendle wasn’t willing to take all of the credit. He was quick to shake it off like a helpless defender.
“I have to credit my teammates. They found me when I was open and trusted in me to hit big shots down the stretch,” Kendle said. “Everyone on our team is an All-American. Without those guys pushing me in practice, I wouldn’t be the player I am today.”
Kendle played a huge role in the Knights’ success against the eighth-ranked Mavericks (28-5). He scored the first seven points of the second half to keep Bellarmine within striking distance of Mankato and managed to hit the trey that put the Knights in front by two (66-64) with 5:53 remaining.
The Mavericks tied the score at 66-66 moments later after Jefferson Mason nearly lost his balance but tipped in the ball off of a missed shot. Bellarmine quickly got the lead back as Braydon Hobbs nailed a 3-pointer.
“You could see that Jeremy was trying to fight through the pain when he was cramping up,” Bellarmine head coach Scott Davenport said. “He is a tremendous competitor, but I think he is a better person than he is a player.”
Mankato and Bellarmine were tied at 38-38 at halftime, and you figured this game was going to come down to which team could make the big plays down the stretch, particularly on the defensive end of the floor.
The Knights ended up rising to the occasion. Down 64-63 after Mason made a layup, Bellarmine clamped down on defense. They gave up only one more field goal in the final four minutes of the game and sealed the deal with free-throw shooting.
Bellarmine only forced eight turnovers but they held Mankato to 43.6 percent shooting from the field and made it tough for them to run their offense with the season hanging in the balance.
Mason and Cameron Hodges scored 24 points apiece to pace the Mavericks, who saw their first ever trip to the national semfinals end in gut-wrenching fashion. Mason also grabbed 14 rebounds for the 24th double-double of his career.
“We will not walk out of here with our heads hanging down,” Mavericks head coach Matt Margenthaler said. “Our guys played hard. We just couldn’t make plays down the stretch. We had good looks. They didn’t go down.”
Bellarmine stayed the course even when Manakato seemed to have the momentum in its grasp early in the second half.
Marcus Hill, the quick and talented senior point guard for the Mavericks, was making plays left and right, dishing the ball off to open teammates, including a sharp pass in the corner to Taylor Morrow, who swished a 3-pointer through the net to put his team ahead 51-47 with a little more than 15 minutes to play.
The lead wouldn’t last and the Knights were able to turn the tide as the second half wore on.
Bellarmine shot 52 percent from the field and got 16 points from Justin Benedetti, who came through with a huge three-point play late by driving to the hoop and drawing a foul on the shot. The senior pumped his fist after the basket and sank the free throw to put Bellarmine in front 63-62.
Chris Dowe came off the bench and torched the Mavericks for 21 points, highlighting his effort with a thunderous one-hand dunk over a defender early in the first half that gave Bellarmine an 18-15 lead.
Hobbs and Luke Sprague scored 13 points apiece as the Knights ran their offense to near perfection and only turned the ball over four times.
“You should have to play your best with a trip to the championship game on the line, and I thought we played really well tonight,” Davenport said. “Minnesota State has relentless rebounders and I thought we held our own in the second half and we also did a good job of sharing the basketball. That was the difference.”
As for getting to the title game, Kendle has been waiting for this moment his entire career.
The Knights will look to become the first team from the Midwest Region to win a title since 2009 when Findlay capped a 36-0 season with a 56-53 overtime win against Cal Poly Pomona.
“The only thing on our minds all year has been to win a national championship.,” Kendle said. “We are proud we have an opportunity to accomplish the goal.”