LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Bellarmine gutted out a 79-74 victory against Kentucky Wesleyan on Tuesday to earn its second consecutive NCAA Midwest Regional Championship and a berth into the Elite Eight next week.
The Knights’ Chris Dowe earned regional most outstanding player after his 21 point, 10-rebound, six-assist effort helped turn back the 18th-ranked Panthers for the third time this season.
Playing without 6-8 forward Luke Sprague, who missed his second consecutive game with a shoulder injury, Bellarmine got a big-time performance from Jelani Johnson, who came off the bench to post a career-high with 11 points, including a clutch basket to put the Knights up nine with 5:07 remaining.
The Panthers played like the No. 18 ranking they own by crashing the boards for a plus-11 rebound margin and pushing the Knights to the very last minute. Bellarmine countered the Panthers’ board work by challenging every shot and registering a season-high 10 blocked shots while holding KWC to 39-percent shooting.
Leading the charge with a career-high seven blocks was Braydon Hobbs, who showed the versatility that earned him GLVC Player of the Year award this year, by also racking up 14 points, eight assists and seven rebounds while playing all 40 minutes.
Bellarmine jumped out of the gates well, running out to 13-4 lead before the Panthers, as they did in all three regional games, mounted a comeback, and eventually pulled ahead 24-23 on a Marseilles Stewart 3-pointer. From that point, neither team led by more than three, and the two GLVC rivals went into halftime deadlocked at 31.
Coming out of the break, both teams had empty possessions before Bellarmine struck first on a short jumper by Jeremy Kendle, and the Knights would never surrender the lead.
However, the game was far from over. Every time Bellarmine would get a little separation, KWC came back and hung within striking distance the rest of the way.
After a Brandon Johnson triple brought the Panthers within five at the 1:03 mark, a layup by Hobbs and pair of Richie Phares free throws following a KWC turnover put the Knights ahead by nine with just 33 seconds in the game.