EVANSVILLE, IN — The Southern Indiana Screaming Eagles are heading to the DII men’s basketball championship semifinals. That’s not something many people thought could be possible a few weeks ago.
The No. 7 Screaming Eagles pulled off the biggest upset in the modern DII Men’s Elite Eight seeding era, defeating No. 2 West Texas A&M in front of a record crowd in their home town. The 7,330 USI faithful — with a few Buffs fans sprinkled in — not only broke but demolished the attendance record for the Elite Eight era that began in 1989. No quarterfinals or semifinals game has ever seen more fans at a game, and Southern Indiana delivered. The previous record was set in 1994 with just over 6,000. The only game to surpass this one was the 2013 national championship game, played by itself on the same site of the Final Four of March Madness.
“One of the best crowds I’ve played in front of for sure,” senior guard Alex Stein said. “They gave us energy all night."
“We played so well on both ends. Our defense struggled a little bit in the second half. But we were sharing the ball, scoring baskets. That crowd played a big part of it.”
The Screaming Eagles' journey to the national semifinals has been nothing short of a Cinderella story. They've upset not one, not two, but three of DII basketball's top 15 teams — in order, No. 15 Lewis, No. 7 Bellarmine, and No. 3 West Texas A&M — and now have No. 6 Point Loma awaiting them in the semifinals.
FOLLOW LIVE: Updates from the DII Men's Elite Eight
But for Alex Stein, the journey started, well, at birth. You see, his father Rick has been the Southern Indiana women's basketball coach for the past 20 years. Young Alex grew up as much a fixture at the Screaming Eagles now-former home, The PAC, as the hardwood the teams played upon. That's what makes this season a little more special.
The senior guard became just the third player in school history to score 2,000 and he did it at The PAC. And on Senior Night, a night that not only honored Stein and his classmates but the final home game at The PAC as USI sets to move to a new home arena, Stein left his final mark as only he could.
A game-winning shot as the final seconds rolled off the clock.
“There was so much emotion on Senior Night,” Stein told us. “Last night in that gym, it was a sad night but it was with seniors I’ve been friends with my entire life, so it was really special.
“I didn’t expect the finish to be the way it went down. I was hoping to be up by a few points and we could all step out together. Regardless, it was a special night.”
And the ride continues a little longer. The House the Steins Helped Build may be closing, but The Ford Center, approximately 6.3 miles down the road, will do for now.
“It’s amazing," Stein said, hardly able to contain the ear-to-ear grin on his face. "Being here in Evansville, an amazing crowd, amazing fanbase. But there’s two more. We’ll focus on that.”
“We don’t have much time to celebrate. Obviously, we’re excited about this win, but tomorrow we got to come back and play another game.”
That game? A national semifinals game against yet another top-15 team in DII basketball. And you can be sure the walls and roof of the Ford Center will be tested as an even larger convocation of rowdy and Screaming Eagles fans is expected to watch Southern Indiana's favorite son do his thing one more time.
Elsewhere around The Ford Center
Or should we call it Upset City, Indiana? In the three years of the seeding of the Elite Eight, there has never been a semifinal round where the top four seeds have not advanced. That is all changed as three of the four lower seeds advanced.
First, No. 5 Saint Anselm took care of a No. 4 Nova Southeastern team that was amid a program record-setting season. "We didn't just break them, we shattered them," head coach Jim Crutchfield said of his team's first NCAA DII tournament appearance. But it was a near record-setting day by Saint Anselm that prevailed. The Hawks hit 16 3-pointers, tied for second-most in Elite Eight history. Sharp-shooter Tim Guers led the way, going 6-for-10 behind the arc, also a top 5 single-game performance in Elite Eight lore.
"A big game like this you just worry about executing, not that it's an Elite Eight game or a big arena, you just worry about the play," Guers said. "I thought I got a couple more open looks in the second half when they went to that zone, and I was the one who ended up with a couple good looks."
🚨 #SCtop10 Alert! Tim Guers pours home a LONG-RANGE trey to end the first half, sending the @STAHawksMBB team to a halftime lead and, ultimately, to their first-ever @NCAADII Elite Eight victory! #HawksSoarHigher @ESPNAssignDesk pic.twitter.com/de2p0MgoKz— Saint Anselm Hawks (@STAHawks) March 27, 2019
Then No. 8 Mercyhurst nearly pulled off the upset of the year. The Lakers had undefeated No. 1 Northwest Missouri State on the ropes. Despite losing starting guard Diego Bernard and All-American Joey Witthus to injury, the Bearcats prevailed, barely winning 55-51. But the Lakers impressed everyone, even their head coach.
"There's no scare factor in them," Lakers head coach Gary Manchel said. "Whoever the team is, whatever the ranking is, whatever the rivalry is, they play the game the same way. We probably shocked a lot of people today."
In the nightcap, No. 6 Point Loma downed 2018 semifinalist, No. 3 Queens (NC). The Royals Shaun Willett was unstoppable, scoring 27 points with 11 rebounds, but the Sea Lions' Daulton Hommes and Preston Beverly presented a two-headed attack that hit big shot after big shot, thwarting any run Queens tried to make.
"Coming out after half, we knew they were going to make a run," Beverly said. "We just had to weather the storm and stick to the game plan. We have a veteran group of guys who were able to keep their nose down and fight through that run."
The fight continues from Upset City on Thursday night. When the dust settles, just two teams will remain. There will be close to 8,000 fans in red trying to make sure that Southern Indiana is one of them.