SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — Jake Dastrup had his doubts that BYU-Hawaii could make a run at an NCAA Division II national championship.
Chaminade had ended the Seasiders’ regular season with an 84-82 loss and the odds of making the NCAA tournament seemed stacked against the team.
“I remember we were sitting around the computer the next day wondering if we had even gotten into the regional tournament,” Dastrup said. “To see how far we have come since then is amazing. We really didn’t think we would be here. To do it is surreal and we want to make the most of our opportunity.”
Dreams really do come true, and although the Seasiders (22-8) seemed like an unlikely candidate for the national championship game just a few weeks ago, entering the tourney unranked nationally and as a seven seed, they will play for the game’s biggest prize at 1 p.m. ET Saturday at the MassMutual Center.
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Their opponent is No. 2 Bellarmine (32-2) and the game will be broadcast live on CBS. The Seasiders are here after beating high-flying and top-ranked West Liberty State (33-1) at its own game, winning the fast-paced national semifinal 110-101.
Junior guard Jet Chang had a hard time explaining the thrill of the moment, maybe because he was too tired to talk after playing lights out against the Hilltoppers. Chang went off for 43 points, drilling seven treys along the way, as he willed his team to one more win.
He managed to catch his breath long enough to talk about the moment.
“To play in the championship game is unbelievable. The chance is once in a lifetime,” Chang said. “We weren’t sure if we could go this far, but we have played well together during the tournament and we are looking forward to playing for the title.”
BYU-Hawaii has become the darling of this tournament. As the players made their way through the hallway of the arena late Thursday night, fans greeted them with loud cheers.
Head coach Ken Wagner has been at BYU-Hawaii for 21 seasons and has won more than 400 games. He said he and his players appreciate the support their fans have provided during this magical run and reflected on the challenges of finally breaking through to the title game.
For the past three seasons, the Seasiders always ended up on the losing end of the deal. They lost three consecutive West Regional finals, including two to Cal Poly Pomona, the national runner-up in 2009 and the national champion a year ago.
“Anyone that plays wants to be in the championship game,” Wagner said. “When you first start coaching you might think it’s an easy thing to accomplish. But it is awfully tough. It feels good to finally be here.”
Of course, there were moments this year when even Wagner wondered if this was all possible.
Sure, his team never lost back-to-back games, but it had some moments where it hardly played championship-caliber basketball.
The biggest disappointment was the 81-54 loss to California State-Dominguez Hills in the season opener, but the Seasiders recovered from it and found a way to win games even when they were not at their best.
“We would look at the statistics sometimes and wonder how on earth we ever won the game,” Wagner said. “It shows our guys have found ways to win. It’s a credit to their effort.”
Chang, Dastrup and Marques Whippy have been the primary scorers for the Seasiders this season. Chang is averaging nearly 20 points per game while Whippy, a senior guard is clicking for a little more than 14 points per outing. Dastrup, a junior guard, is averaging nearly 13 points per outing.
The Seasiders have scored 206 points in their first two wins in Springfield and have used a balanced attack to make their offense run at a high level. Six players scored in double figures against Bloomfield in a quarterfinal victory while five hit double figures against West Liberty.
“We gained a lot of confidence in the regional tournament and started playing team-oriented basketball,” senior guard Heath Gameren said. “We all started doing what we were great at and it’s taken us this far.”
Turning around quickly and facing an opponent it knows little about will be a challenge for BYU-Hawaii. The thing is, Dastrup believes the style his team plays will serve as an advantage against the Knights.
“We have done a great job of preparing on a short basis all season,” Dastrup said. “More than anything, I think we give bad matchups to other teams because of our style. If we shoot the ball as well as we can an run like we are able to, we’ll be fine.”