EVANSVILLE, Ind. -- The game almost happened more than four months ago.
It’ll be a battle between the nation’s top team that has won a school-record 24 games in a row and is coached by a former Purdue star, and IUP, a team that has battled underdog roles throughout the postseason and is searching for its first national championship.
Top-ranked Florida Southern and Atlantic Regional champ Indiana (Pa.) will finally meet in the DII men’s basketball championship game at the Ford Center Saturday.
And they almost played in a preseason scrimmage in Florida. They just needed a few more pizzas.
“At the Division II level, it was the fight for hotel rooms and pizza,” IUP coach Joe Lombardi said Friday, remembering the almost game that wasn’t a game.
The Crimson Hawks played an exhibition game Nov. 8 against South Florida in Tampa, Florida, and were looking to line up a scrimmage while they were down south. Lombardi and Florida Southern coach Linc Darner talked about a tip in Lakeland, but the Crimson Hawks instead went to Fort Myers to scrimmage against DI Florida Gulf Coast. And, Lombardi said, the Crimson Hawks beat Dunk City's Eagles.
That game will finally take place on a national stage Saturday. Florida Southern (35-1) and IUP (31-6) have never played each other in men’s basketball.
“It didn’t work out and it’s just kind of ironic we’re playing here in the national championship game when we could have tipped the year off in a scrimmage and now we’re finishing the year,” Darner said.
“It is ironic,” Lombardi said. “It’s kind of neat the way the whole thing worked out. We’re excited. They’re the No. 1 team in the country. ... We have a lot of respect for them and we’re hoping to be competitive.”
The Moccasins, who won the national championship in 1981, have torn through their schedule in school-record fashion. Their all-senior starting lineup features guard Kevin Capers, whose 2,295 career points rank among the top-five active scorers in all NCAA divisions. His 3-pointer with eight seconds remaining Thursday night gave Florida Southern a 79-76 win against Bellarmine and claimed a spot in the title game. In the quarterfinals against Southern New Hampshire, Capers scored a game-high 28 points. He was named most outstanding player in both the conference and region tournaments.
“I’m excited for all of our guys, but Kevin has had an unbelievable career,” Darner said.
The Mocs have averaged 80 points in the past two games despite being outrebounded in both games.
Meanwhile, there are whispers that IUP quietly sneaked into the championship game. The Crimson Hawks were an at-large selection to the tournament field after finishing in second place in the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference’s West Division. They have faced underdog roles in nearly every game, but defeated 2014 national runner-up West Liberty in the Atlantic Regional title game and came back from 10 points down to defeat South Central champion Tarleton State 72-68 in the semifinals Thursday.
Darner doesn’t have to be convinced of how good IUP is. The Crimson Hawks lost to USF by just five points in their November trip to Florida. They played Pittsburgh of the Big East in another exhibition and gave the Panthers fits.
IUP’s three-guard starting lineup includes Shawn Dyer, a graduate student who played in three other tournaments with West Liberty, and senior point guard Devante Chance, the PSAC West Athlete of the Year whose 212 assists this year and 507 career assists are school records. The third guard, Brandon Norfleet, has extraordinary shooting stats: 90.8 percent at the free-throw line, 49.5 percent in shot attempts and 40.3 percent in 3-pointers.
“The biggest thing that worries me is how good they are at the guard play because one thing we’ve been able to do is turn people over,” Darner said. “They’ve got two very experienced guards that have played a lot of college basketball. We’ve relied on turnovers so much this year. Are we going to be able to pressure the guards?”
While Florida Southern defeated Bellarmine (Louisville, Kentucky) by just three points in the semifinals, the Moccasins blasted away early in the game, bolting to a quick 24-9 lead in the game’s early moments on 5-for-5 3-point shooting by junior guard Dominque Williams. Blink, and it’s over.
Against IUP, that end-to-end action may be slowed to a crawl.
“I think it’s going to be a tempo game,” Lombardi said. “If the game gets into the 80s and 90s, then it really slants to them. We’ve got to make sure we don’t fall into a trap of trying to play their game at their pace.”
The Crimson Hawks are in it for the long haul.
“That’s why it’s 40 minutes,” Lombardi said. “It’s not going to be won in the first 10 or 15. They don’t give out any trophies for the first 10 or the first 20 or the first 30. You’ve got to go the whole distance.”