EVANSVILLE, IN – In the end, the only numbers that mattered were 79-76. No. 1-ranked Florida Southern College’s All-American guard Kevin Capers drained a three pointer with 0:08 left to break a 76-76 deadlock to lead his team to victory over the No. 3-ranked Bellarmine Knights in the semifinal round of the NCAA Division II Elite Eight tournament at the Ford Center.
An epic clash that, combined with the first time these teams matched up last December, proved to be two of the best games played at any level this year.
“I’m going to take you back to the first Bellarmine game,” Capers, who finished with 17 points, said in answering a question about his late-game winner. “I missed the buzzer-beater in regulation and they’ve been picking on me ever since then. We drew up a play. I was going to drive but No. 12 (Jake Thelen) was sitting in the paint so I backed up and took the shot.”
The Moccasins (35-1) advanced to the Division II championship game Saturday against Indiana University of Pennsylvania and they did it on the strength of timely shooting, 12 steals and forcing 20 Bellarmine turnovers. Even though the Knights outrebounded the Moccs by a wide margin, 44-24, it was those turnovers and the resulting 25 points FSC scored off of them that helped make the difference.
“I thought at the beginning of the game we played unbelievable, probably the best we played all year,” Florida Southern head coach Linc Darner said. “We got up by 18 and we knew they were going to make a run. They did a great job coming back. But with four minutes left I told my assistant that I was going to put the five seniors in and that we’d win it with them or lose it with them. They came in and did a great job.”
It was an early barrage of threes that keyed that big FSC lead along with some miscommunication by the Bellarmine defenders. With the Knights up 7-6, Florida Southern’s Dominique Williams (team high 22 points) went all-galaxy on Bellarmine draining five consecutive three pointers with Tyler Kelly adding a sixth to take a 24-9 lead with 12:16 remaining, eventually taking a 29-11 lead with 10:48 left in the half.
“I tried to come out aggressive and tried not to think about it too much,” Williams said. “They put me on the team to shoot so, that’s what I do. Playing in front of their crowd is very difficult. We have a big support group, but their fan club is, by far, one of the best.”
At that point, Bellarmine (31-4) dug-in on both ends of the floor as Jake Thelen and Chris Whitehead led the comeback charge along with Corbin Maynard who hit two of his three three pointers during that comeback. The Knights outscored the Mocs 25-11 to close out the half cutting the FSC lead to 40-36.
“In the first few minutes of the game we didn’t defend well or rebound well at all,” Thelen said. “We knew if we picked up those things that we’d cut the lead. Coach said ‘try to be down six before halftime’ and we cut it to four and we had all the momentum in the world.”
Midway through the second half the Knights were down 60-55 when Whitehead hit two layups and Corbin Maynard drained a three to give BU a 62-60 lead. Another momentum shift.
But just moments later, after FSC tied the score at 62, Bubby Johnson was called for a foul. The official scorer had him for five fouls and signaled to the referees that he was out of the game. Only problem there was that the Florida Southern scorekeeper and the Bellarmine scorekeeper had Johnson assigned with four fouls. Even the television announcers were signaling across the court with four fingers.
That’s when the game took an unfortunate turn as the officials took nearly nine minutes to determine how many fouls Johnson actually had. A grueling ordeal for all involved and all involved agreed that it took quite a bit of starch out of the Bellarmine momentum.
“We were trying to get the game going back because we had great momentum,” Bellarmine head coach Scott Davenport said of the delay. “We come back from 15, 16 down in the first half. We’re down at the under-12 timeout and we wanted to take the game in four minute segments and we were right on schedule. We gained a lead and we wanted the game to get going. As to what happened? I don’t know.”
Nor did anyone else. Not even the NCAA tournament officials, the guys in the suits, had an explanation for several things that happened, most notably the extraordinary delay midway through the second half.
When asked for an opportunity to speak to the referees or if the NCAA officials would make a statement, all queries were denied.
After all that long delay, it was determined that Johnson had four fouls and Thelen hit two free throws, followed by a Suggs twisting jumper in the lane and two more free throws from Whitehead stretching the Bellarmine lead to 68-63 with 6:13 to play.
Two minutes later, with Bellarmine holding a 72-67 lead, another oddity occurred. As Williams canned his sixth three pointer, a foul was called away from the ball. One official called the foul before the shot, another called the basket good and motioned that the foul was during the shot. The officials again went to the monitor and credited Williams for a three point play and sent Michael Volovic to the line for a one-and-one opportunity. He made both to tie the score at 72-72. The oh-so-rare five point play.
Bellarmine scored twice to take a four point lead, but a Stephen Battle (16 points) layup and a jumper by Capers set the stage for the All-American’s game winning three.
“They just made a great play,” Davenport said. “We defended arguably the best player in America in Capers and he hit a big-time shot. Give him all the credit in the world because he made a great shot.”
Thelen’s All-American season comes to an end as he finished with 16 points and a career-high 19 rebounds. Whitehead led all scorers with 24 points and six assists. Rusty Troutman scored 11 and added seven rebounds.
“You couldn’t ask for a better season,” Thelen said. “These fifteen guys on the team are the best friends I have. It hurts to lose, but what hurts the worst is not being able to play with these guys ever again.”
The players on both teams played championship basketball. The coaches coached at championship caliber. All totaled, these two teams battled for 85 minutes this year and Florida Southern came out on top in both meetings. They left all of us the gift of two outstanding games that will be talked about for years to come.
“When you ask a son or a daughter to do the best they can do, mentally and physically, they’re a champion,” Davenport said. “This team may not have a trophy, but they’re champions. They have the heart of champions, the work ethic of champions and a trophy doesn’t define a champion. The qualities of individuals and groups define champions. This basketball team, these young men are champions.”
And that makes them, the “Family”—including all of Knights Nation—No. 1 in the end.