EVANSVILLE, Ind. -- The flood of Bellarmine men's basketball faithful turned the Ford Center into a literal Knights Nation.
And utter domination is what they witnessed from the Knights.
It happened throughout the Midwest Regional of the Division II tournament. And it happened again on Wednesday night in the Elite Eight. The Knights played every bit of what they steadfastly refer to as "Bellarmine basketball," which typically results in a mind-boggling efficiency that gradually decimates the hope of opponents.The target Wednesday was fourth-ranked Minnesota State-Moorhead, a formidable group that entered with a glittering 35-3 record and left with a 92-75 defeat against the third-ranked Knights that equaled their most lopsided loss of the season.
"These players have deserved every ounce of the credit all year, and that doesn't change [Wednesday night]," BU coach Scott Davenport said.
The Knights now have marched into the final four for the third time in five years behind wins of 24, 26, nine and 17 points. They are 31-3 but their most difficult challenge lies ahead in the form of top-ranked Florida Southern, which edged BU 101-96 in overtime at Knights Hall in mid-December. The two heavyweights will meet at 9:30 p.m. ET Thursday.
"I remember after we lost," said Bellarmine forward Jake Thelen, "we said, 'We'll see them again.' "
Getting reacquainted will occur because Bellarmine was nearly unstoppable against Minnesota State-Moorhead. The Knights shot a blistering 60.7 percent from the floor -- 67.9 percent in the first half.
"We're in a rhythm right now," said Thelen, who poured in a game-high 26 points on 12-of-16 shooting and clutched a game-best eight rebounds, "and we have great shooters and passers."
The Knights sure did verify that statement from their consensus All-American.
Guard Chris Whitehead scored 18 points and dished out five assists. Forward Josh Derksen matched him with 18 points. Guard Rusty Troutman buried all three of his 3-pointers in scoring 11 points with four rebounds and three assists.
Things were clicking right from the start for Bellarmine. The Knights hit their first five shots, including a pair of 3-pointers from George Suggs and Derksen. When Maynard converted a traditional three-point play, BU gained a 17-9 lead and forced the Dragons into catch-up mode.
Derksen followed a steal by Thelen with a layup for a 12-point advantage. As expected from a team with more than 30 wins, Minnesota State Moorhead pushed back and got to within 49-43 at halftime.
There was no letup to start the second half. In fact, Bellarmine started out just like it did in the first half. Troutman fired to Thelen for a transition layup, which started a string of seven consecutive shots that the Knights would make. Included in that onslaught were 3-pointers by Derksen and Troutman and a pair of baskets by Whitehead.
In addition, Thelen, who lobbed an alley-oop to Derksen for a slam dunk in the first half, found his teammate again with a sweet backdoor pass for another jam. A little over five minutes into the second half, Bellarmine's lead skyrocketed to 17 points.
"Our kids' passing was just timely," Davenport said. "I've seen that type of teamwork since October."
Minnesota State-Moorhead got to within 13 but no closer. The result of Thelen's last basket was a 23-point advantage for the Knights. While Bellarmine's All-American erupted, Jordan Riewer, an All-American for the Dragons, was limited to 11 points on 4-of-11 shooting. Aaron Lien and Tyler Vaughan had 13 apiece.
Derksen summed up Bellarmine's effort on defense by saying "I have complete faith in the guy next to me and behind me."
Behind him as well was the Bellarmine fan base, which came out in full force. The stands were a sea of scarlet. Knights Nation, indeed.
"It's easy to be successful when you have a community and a school that supports you as much as Bellarmine does," Suggs said. "We're extremely proud to be a part of that community."