HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. — Bellarmine entered its quarterfinal game on Wednesday with one starter recovering from an injury and had another one go down early in the first half.
But the Knights still managed to defeat Alabama-Huntsville 82-73 and moved one step closer to becoming the first team to win back-to-back national championships since 1994.
Bellarmine (29-3) will play Montevallo (28-7) in a national semifinal game on Thursday.
The Knights’ starting lineup for Wednesday’s game included senior forward Luke Sprague, who sat out the team’s two previous playoffs games with a shoulder injury.
To make matters worse, sophomore guard Keisten Jones hurt his left knee early in the game and had to be helped off the court.
But that didn’t stop the defending national champions from getting the win before a crowd of 4,281 that was mostly Bellarmine fans.
“It’s a team game. It always has been and always will be,” Bellermine coach Scott Davenport said. “Tonight demonstrated that more than any night you’ll ever see.”
Alabama-Huntsville got off to a good start and led 41-32 at halftime. Junior guard Jaime Smith scored 16 points to lead the Chargers, who shot 54.2 percent (13 of 24) from the field in the first half.
But falling behind didn’t phase the Knights, who came into the second half determined to do better.
“We tell our guys all the time things aren’t always going to go our way,” Bellermine junior guard Chris Dowe said. “Just buckle down and get stops. The offense will always take care of itself.”
Bellarmine opened the second half with a 13-3 run and regained the lead at 45-44 on a basket by Dowe with 17:03 remaining.
The Knights extended their lead to 67-57 before Alabama-Huntsville mounted a comeback and went ahead 73-72 on a layup by junior forward Zane Campbell with 2:25 left on the clock.
But Bellarmine closed the game by scoring 10 consecutive points, making one field goal and eight of 10 free throws.
“We battled back, we went up one,” Alabama-Huntsville coach Lennie Acuff said. “We’ve won a lot of games like that the last couple years. I’d have bet the farm on us [when we went up one]. We just had a couple bad possessions at the end. That’s my fault.”
Bellermine made several good defensive plays to hold Alabama-Huntsville scoreless during the final two minutes of the game. One of them was a blocked shot by senior guard Braydon Hobbs on a drive to the basket by Chargers’ guard Josh Magette.
“It was a key point in the game,” Hobbs said. “Magette of course went around our guys like he did all night, so I just came off weak side. It’s just help-side defense. We practice that all year. We emphasize help-side defense and I think that’s why we’re successful.”
Bellarmine shot 70 percent (14 of 20) from the field in the second half and 53.1 percent for the game. The team’s leading scorers were Dowe with 24 points and junior guard Jeremy Kendle with 23.
Hobbs finished with five points, seven below his average. But he contributed seven assists, five steals and two blocks.
Campbell scored a game-high 26 points for Alabama-Huntsville. After shooting 54.2 percent (13 of 24) from field in the first half, the Chargers slipped to 40 percent in the second half (12 of 30).
“We didn’t execute very well at the end and we pride ourselves on execution,” Acuff said. “And their switching [defense] bothered us. They’re so big and long at every position. The longer the game went, they got a little better handle on us.”