SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — Jeremy Kendle has been waiting a long time to play for an NCAA Division II national championship. He and his Bellarmine teammates have worked their tails off in practice and have survived a rigorous schedule to reach the final weekend of the basketball season.
The senior guard will finally get his moment at 1 p.m. ET Saturday when the No. 2 Knights (33-2) take on unranked BYU-Hawaii (22-8) in a title game that will be televised live on CBS.
“We are really fortunate to have made it this far,” Kendle said. “We have had a national championship on our mind since October and have played as a team. I’m proud of what we accomplished.”
Bellarmine is here in part because it has been tested throughout this journey. The Knights not only had to compete in the Great Lakes Valley Conference, where it won the league tournament, it also had to battle through the Midwest Regional.
The Midwest Region has a tradition of producing great champions and there was a time this season when as many as six teams were nationally ranked. Kentucky Wesleyan has won eight titles and the most recent champion out of the Midwest was Findlay, which went 36-0 en route to the 2009 title.
Kentucky Wesleyan is the only other team from the region that has won a title since 2000, winning it all in 2001. Southern Indiana, Findlay, Southern Illinois-Edwardsville and Grand Valley State all took turns representing the region at the Elite Eight between 2005 and 2008 but failed to come home with the championship.
“We beat each other up in league play and in our regionals, and sometimes you get here and you are out of energy,” Bellarmine head coach Scott Davenport said. “Before we played Ferris State, our last eight games were against teams that we were playing for the second, third or fourth time. It’s not easy. It’s a testimonial to what the guys have accomplished and I feel like we still have a lot left in the tank.”
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The Knights have won their last eight games and have been efficient on both ends of the floor. They are averaging a little over 80 points per game and have given up just under 70 points per outing.
Bellarmine had to grind out wins in both games here at the Elite Eight, edging Midwestern State 70-64 in the quarterfinal round and getting past Minnesota State-Mankato 81-74 on Thursday night.
“When you come out of our region, you try not to relax once you get here,” sophomore guard Chris Dowe said. “Our conference and region really prepared us to play and we can’t wait to play for the title.”
Bellarmine has five seniors on the roster and those players have used that leadership to its advantage. Its ability to play as a team — the Knights have nearly 600 assists on the year — has not only led it to its first title game in school history, but it has made its fan base proud.
“Louisville has grabbed these guys,” Davenport said. “There have been game-watch parties, public and private, and I give a lot of credit to the fans who have come out here to watch us, too. This success could not have happened to a more deserving group. I have been with these guys all year and I know how hard they have worked to get here.”
As for playing BYU-Hawaii on such a short turnaround, Kendle isn’t concerned. The Knights’ All-American believes his team will be ready for the challenge in front of it.
“They have a unique style of play, and having only one day to prepare has its ups and downs,” Kendle said. “They only have one day to prepare for us, too. We just have to go out, play hard and give it our all. If we do that, we’ll have a chance to win a championship.”