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Paul D. Bowker | | March 26, 2015

DII semifinals feature four 30-win teams for first time in championship history

EVANSVILLE, Ind. -- Thursday night‘s semifinal round of the Division II Men‘s Basketball Championship will be historic. For the first time, all four teams have at least 30 wins apiece.

Upon hearing that news, Bellarmine head coach Scott Davenport shook his head and chuckled following the Knights’ 92-75 win in Wednesday night’s quarterfinal round against Minnesota State-Moorhead.

“It’s four great teams ... they‘re all great teams,” Davenport said. “You don’t get here by luck. You get here because you’re the best. This was great basketball. This is big-time basketball.”

(1) Tarleton State vs. (3) Indiana (Pa.)
7 p.m. ET Thursday | CBS Sports Network

Among the explosive teams is top-ranked Florida Southern, which has won 23 consecutive games and is looking for its first national title since 1981.

“It’s going to be a heck of a final four, I know that,” said Florida Southern coach Linc Darner, whose Moccasins overcame a 10-point deficit to defeat Southern New Hampshire 81-70.

Combined, final four teams Florida Southern (33-1), Bellarmine (31-3), Tarleton State (31-3) and Indiana (Pa.) (30-6) have a 125-13 record.

Tarleton State will face IUP in the first game of the semifinals at 7 p.m. ET Thursday at the Ford Center, followed by a marquee rematch between Bellarmine and Florida Southern.

The winners will play in the national championship game at 3 p.m. Saturday on CBS.

Florida Southern defeated Bellarmine 101-96 in overtime in the championship game of the Bellarmine Classic in December, a battle that has been talked about all week at the DII championship.

“We know they’re a very, very, very good basketball team. We’re very excited we get the opportunity to play them again,” said Bellarmine forward Jake Thelen, who scored a game-high 26 points against Minnesota State-Moorhead. “After the game [in December], we said we’d meet them again.”

(1) Bellarmine vs. (1) Florida Southern
9:30 p.m. ET Thursday | CBS Sports Network

“They’re solid in every facet of the game,” Davenport said of the Mocs. “It’ll be two great teams playing.”

In addition to facing a team that hit 67.9 percent of its shots in the first half of its game Wednesday, Florida Southern will face a Bellarmine team playing close to home. Bellarmine is located in Louisville, Kentucky, about a two-hour drive from Evansville. The school sent 11 buses of students and fans to Wednesday’s game, which drew more than 1,600. Every one of the Knights’ 37 baskets was met with thundering approval.

“We think we have the best fans in Division II basketball,” Thelen said.

Bellarmine will need all that noise, plus Thelen’s shooting and rebounding and the sharp passing of guard Chris Whitehead, a Fordham transfer, to knock off Florida Southern.

The Mocs won by 11 points Wednesday after playing so poorly early that they trailed Southern New Hampshire 29-19. Blame it on opening-day nerves.

“The nerves for guys is going to be a little bit different than a regular-season game and things like that. I think getting the first game under your belt for everybody is always a big key,” Darner said. “Hopefully it will help us for [Thursday] night. ... We’re going to play an unbelievable team.”

After losing the ball on six turnovers early in the game, the Mocs had fewer turnovers for the remainder of the contest. They forced Southern New Hampshire into 24 turnovers and scored 28 points off those turnovers. Kevin Capers, who has 2,278 career points, scored a game-high 28 points and also had a game-high five assists.

Florida Southern was out-rebounded 37-29, but that wasn’t unusual for the Mocs. What they lack in size they make up for in defensive and offensive quickness.

“We’re probably going to be the littlest team out here,” Darner said.

IUP is attempting to get to its second national championship game in six years, while Tarleton State is chasing after a title for its 27-year coach, Lonn Reisman.

Like Florida Southern, Tarleton State had to overcome a slow start in its 77-59 win against Mount Olive.

“We were a little bit shell shocked in the first five minutes. You have to be careful on that in the Elite Eight,” said Reisman, whose Texans trailed 7-0 less than three minutes into the game.

Once Tarleton’s smothering defense kicked in, the game turned. And that’s what IUP will face Thursday night. The Texans held Mount Olive to 24.1 percent shooting in the second half while making 66.7 percent of their own shots. Four Tarleton State players reach double figures, led by guard Mo Lee’s 15 points and three assists.

IUP’s three-guard lineup of Devante Chance, Brandon Norfleet and four-time Elite Eight player Shawn Dyer will be difficult to beat. In their quarterfinal 69-65 win against Elite Eight first-timer Azusa Pacific, they combined for 42 points and eight assists.

The battle will emerge when the Crimson Hawks try to poke holes in Tarleton State’s defense, which ranks No. 3 nationally in points allowed per game (60.2).

“We play in a league that’s more defensive oriented,” IUP coach Joe Lombardi said. “While I believe our team played great defense [Wednesday], we understand how to grind it out of the offensive end where possessions are going to be difficult.”

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