March 24th, 2011
Bellarmine Will Play For National Title
Knights advance to championship game with win over Mavs
Nobody wanted the opportunity to play for Bellarmine University's first athletic national championship in school history more than senior Jeremy Kendle.
Pushing through a less than stellar first half offensively, some immensely difficult defensve assignments, and frequent muscle cramping throughout the game, Kendle delivered a gutsy second-half performance against Minnesota State University Mankato on Thursday night, and led his Knights to an 81-74 win over the Mavericks.
The win earns Bellarmine a spot in Saturday's NCAA Division-II national championship against BYU-Hawaii at the MassMutual Center in Springfield, Mass. No other varsity sports team has ever won a national championship for Bellarmine University.
With just two points on 1-of-3 shooting in 17 first-half minutes, Kendle used assertiveness and aggressiveness in the second half to create opportunities for himself and his team. And when the smoke finally cleared, and Kendle finally exhaled, the senior point guard had come up with 18 points, three assists, and a huge 3-pointer that gave BU a lead it would never relinquish with a little less than six minutes to go in the national semifinals.
“My mindset was to continue to play defense hard in the second half,” Kendle said. “I wanted to get my teammates the ball, and I was fortunate to get it back from them and score some buckets.”
Ranked No. 2 in all of Division-II, Bellarmine shot 12-of-23 (52.2 percent) from the three-point line for the game, and needed every one of them to defeat the No. 8-ranked Mavs. MSU had two players - Cameron Hodges and Jefferson Mason - who scored 24 points each. That duo combined for 48 points and 21 rebounds behind a 16-of-27 shooting performance from the field.
Hodges was 5-of-5 from the three-point line and Mason was 10-of-10 from the free throw line.
But the Knights countered with a style they execute better than anyone: team basketball. And behind five players in double figures, including a team-high 21 points from sophomore sixth man Chris Dowe, Bellarmine overcame a 39-23 rebounding disadvantage with a balanced attack and only four turnovers. Three of those turnovers came in the first half.
“We really played well and when you are trying to advance to a national championship, you should be playing your best,” Bellarmine Head Coach Scott Davenport said. “Both teams played with full intensity, and we are looking forward to playing one more game.”
Dowe, who has provided some of the season's most exciting and significant moments, knocked down four critical free throws down the stretch to keep Bellarmine ahead. He also drew a huge charge foul on Minnesota State’s Stephen Kirschbaum with 54.4 seconds to play and then was on the receiving end of an intentional foul on the other end - a sequence that all but sealed BU's national semifinal victory.
“I don’t need to start,” said Dowe. “I actually enjoy coming off bench. There are a number of great sixth men in all levels of basketball, and I try to bring the same focus and spark as they do.”
Bellarmine's Braydon Hobbs provided the night's biggest shot, as the 6-foot-5 junior squared up for an NBA-range 3-pointer with 4:06 to go. The high-arcing attempt proceeded to bounce high off the rim, kiss off the backboard, and roll in, giving BU a 69-66 lead. Hobbs also delivered a leaning runner that gave the Knights its largest lead of the game at that juncture - four points - and put the Knights ahead 71-67 with 2:38 to go.
“We came out and fought hard,” Hobbs said. “We did what Coach Davenport asked us to, and now we’re going to get ready for the national championship game.”
With 6:09 to go and Bellarmine trailing 64-63, MSU appeared to commit a shot clock violation as the buzzer sounded moments after a deflected pass rolled out of bounds. The officials initially asked for one second to be placed back on the 35-second shot clock, but upheld the violation ruling after reviewing the play on the sideline monitors.
On Bellarmine's next possession, Kendle would deliver his second of two, second-half 3-pointer to put the Knights ahead 66-64.
The city of Springfield and the MassMutual Center has been taken over by maroon-clad Bellarmine supporters during the week, and that became extremely evident during the game, as the Knight cheering sections overwhelmed the Minnesota State crowd.
Back in Louisville, students, fans, alums, and administrators alike celebrated the Final Four game and national championship game berth with various watch parties and gatherings around Derby City. Davenport says that his team does not take this outpouring of support and affection lightly, as he continuously reminds his players about the revolution that is taking place as a result of their efforts.
“Louisville has just grabbed these guys,” Davenport said. “I saw pictures of game watching parties for these guys, and I believe two more busloads of students and staff will join us here. You have to give credit to the people here, and there could not be a more deserving group of young men. They represent their parents, the university, the city, and everyone who’s ever put on a Bellarmine jersey or a whistle.”
Bellarmine (32-2) will have a shootaround and conduct a media press conference during an off-day on Friday, and will play for the D-II men's basketball national championship on Saturday at 1pm at the MassMutual Center.
The game, which will be nationally televised on CBS, will be played against BYU-Hawaii - a team that defeated a previously undefeated West Liberty 110-101 on Thursday night in the other national semifinal.