Bellarmine wins first national title
Champs put five players in double figures led by Dowe, Kendle
SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- Bellarmine players stormed center court as time expired, riding the high of the greatest thrill of their lives, their fans roaring on their feet as the ball from a desperation 3-pointer by BYU-Hawaii’s Jet Chang bounced behind the backboard.
The Knights (33-2) were NCAA Division II national champions for the first time in program history, surviving a grueling battle against the Seasiders (22-9) at the MassMutual Center on Saturday afternoon with a 71-68 victory in riveting national final.
Joy overwhelmed the players as they celebrated being on top of the basketball world, and afterward, senior guard Justin Benedetti shared his thoughts on what it meant to be a champion.
“It’s a surreal experience and the best feeling in the world,” Benedetti said. “We’ve worked so hard for this and it’s a moment I’ll never forget. I don’t think it has fully sunk in yet, but winning a championship is an amazing feeling.”
Scott Davenport has been coaching at Bellarmine for six seasons, and he has always dreamed of leading the Knights to a national title. On Saturday, he finally got the job done.
“I am proud of this basketball team because we won this championship as a team,” Davenport said. “I said when I took this job that wanted to come here because the school believes in the same things I do. This is a group of tremendous young men and it’s pretty neat to win with guys who did it the right way.”
This marked the third consecutive year that a West Region team has played for the national title as Cal Poly-Pomona was in the last two Elite Eights, finishing as the runner-up in 2009 and winning the title a year ago.
The game was an instant classic from start to finish, both teams putting their feet to the gas pedals in a back-and-forth affair where neither team could really ever wrap its hands around the momentum.
Turnovers marred the final minute as the two teams took turns trading off miscues. In fact, they combined for nine turnovers in the final two minutes.
Braydon Hobbs split two free throws to put the Knights in front 69-65 but the Seasiders refused to quit. An offensive rebound off of a missed shot by Marques Whippy set up an off-balance 3-pointer by Heath Gameren in front of the press table, slicing the Bellarmine lead to one.
Jeremy Kendle hit one free throw on the other end to put the Knights back up one before Chang, who turned in one of the most memorable three-day runs in Elite Eight history, averaging 33.3 points per outing, attempted a jumper in the lane with just seconds remaining.
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His shot fell short, and after a free throw by Nick Holmes, the Seasiders had two seconds to make something happen. They never got a good look at the basket, though, as their dream of a title came to a disappointing end.
Holmes, a senior forward finished with four points and also had the task of defending Whippy, who managed only two points and grabbed eight rebounds. The senior guard was averaging 14.6 points per outing,
“Nick did a tremendous job on Marques,” Davenport said. “And to be able to hit a big free throw for the final point of his college career is great. You never know when you are going to have to step up, and Nick stepped up when it mattered.”
The Seasiders certainly had their share of opportunities to close the deal. And for a team that entered the NCAA tourney as a seventh seed after not even knowing if it would get in, it gave the Knights all they could handle.
They trailed 47-43 at halftime and even shook off a 63-55 deficit with 7:24 remaining as Jake Dastrup, Chang and Okesene Ale all hit big treys to keep the Seasiders within striking distance.
In the end, though, they could muster up enough magic to pull out the victory.
Chang finished with 35 points and was named the Most Outstanding Player of the tourney, the first player from a losing team to earn the honor since Kentucky Wesleyan’s Antonio Garcia in 1998.
“We kept fighting and we had our opportunities to win at the end,” BYU-Hawaii head coach Ken Wagner said. “It seemed like every time we had an open 3-pointer or layup, we would turn it over or miss the shot. I am proud of our effort but unfortunately we didn’t capitalize on our chances.”
BYU-Hawaii shot 38.1 percent from the field as it was challenged throughout the game by the Knights’ solid defensive effort.
Bellarmine came in giving up 69.9 points per outing and it clamped down defensively in crunch time, forcing the Seasiders to take tough shots and winning the rebounding battle 40-34. Bellarmine forced 13 turnovers as well, including five in the last two minutes.
“It seemed like those last 10 minutes lasted an hour,” Benedetti said. “We kept turning the ball over but we also forced some big turnovers. It came down to us defending hard and making plays when we needed them.”
The Knights shot 44.4 percent from the floor. Kendle and Chris Dowe led the charge, pouring in 16 points apiece, while Benedetti finished with 15. Luke Sprague and Hobbs added 10 points apiece.
As impressive as the balanced attack was, Davenport was more impressed with something that didn’t show up on the stat sheet.
“Our poise was tremendous” Davenport said. “We showed great poise on the grandest of stages.”
From day one of the season, Bellarmine has had its mind set on winning a title. The journey to the top wasn’t easy, however, as the Knights had to survive a brutal schedule down the stretch that featured several teams ranked nationally at one point or another during the year.
But the Knights survived, and their victory against BYU-Hawaii was their ninth in a row.
“We had to play incredible basketball to get here,” Davenport said. “Our guys responded to the challenge and we had to earn this title. They don’t give championships away. This is a great accomplishment. I am so proud of these young men.”