LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — Tuesday night's St. Patrick's Day celebration in Knights Hall, a green-clad throng cheering its NCAA Division II Midwest Region champion Bellarmine University basketball team after an 81-72 victory over Indianapolis, was set into motion a year and a day before, on a long bus ride home from an NCAA loss to that same Indianapolis team in Springfield, Mo.
Bellarmine coach Scott Davenport stood up on the bus and challenged his players to then and there decide what they would do in the offseason to write a different ending in 2015.
Every player who was on that bus remembered.
“It was terrible,” senior Jake Thelen said. “We were watching the selection show for Division I teams. And I remember snow started coming down right as we were getting into Indiana. It was a long, awful bus ride that we didn't want to have to make again.”
Next week, the Knights will ride back into Indiana, but this time they will do so in victory, heading for the NCAA Division II Elite Eight in Evansville.
They did it with their third victory over Indianapolis in four meetings this season, and their 10th meeting with the Greyhounds in three seasons. They did it with defense. And they did it, as they have throughout the postseason, with big plays from people both expected and unexpected.
From Thelen, of course. The Division II All-American was the regional's Most Outstanding Player, and he was the game's most outstanding player. He finished with 24 points, 15 rebounds, made 10 of 12 shots from the field and 4 of 5 from the line. He blocked two shots.
With the Knights up just six and just outside of a minute to play, he dribbled across the lane and hit a runner that put them up eight. After an Indianapolis miss, senior point guard Chris Whitehead grabbed the rebound, found senior Corbin Maynard streaking up the court. Maynard drew the defense, then hit Thelen flying down the lane for a layup that put Bellarmine up 10 with 40 seconds to play.
On the sideline, Davenport spun and threw a roundhouse punch through the air as Indianapolis called timeout. He looked like a cross between Evander Holyfield and Nolan Ryan.
You'd have expected Whitehead to deliver. He had 15 of his 19 points in the second half, making 4 of 5 from the field and 7 of 11 from the line. He also dished out six assists. Rusty Troutman, a sophomore, has been a second-half performer the entire postseason. He finished with 10 points and five assists.
The shot that got it all going, with 4:06 left, was a corner three from senior George Suggs, making it 71-60. Thelen delivered the assist. Suggs blocked five shots. A career high.
And then there was Maynard. Nobody wanted Maynard coming out of DeSales High School.
“We didn't recruit him, he recruited us,” Davenport said.
He hounded the coaching staff until it relented. Had it not, perhaps Bellarmine would not be headed back to its third Elite Eight. Maynard has brought instant energy off the bench. He has been a defensive spark. In the first half Tuesday, Maynard, all 5-foot-11 of him (maybe), flew up to block a Kendall Vieke three-point attempt. Somehow, he pulled down three defensive boards.
“I have to look you in eye and say I wasn't smart enough to recruit him,” Davenport said. “He was cute little Corbin for two years. And he just affects the basketball game. He gets three rebounds. And they're all big.”
As his team was cutting down the nets, Davenport wandered by, a stat sheet in his hand, saying, “I still don't know how we won this.”
Indianapolis made 10 of 21 threes. They grabbed 15 offensive rebounds and took 10 more shots than Bellarmine. The game was played at a high level. The teams combined to make 30 of 38 free throws. They knocked down open looks. They moved the ball. Bellarmine had a chance to go up 13 when a Troutman three bounced out with a couple of minutes till halftime. When the halftime buzzer sounded, the Greyhounds were only down three. They were ranked No. 1 earlier in the season. Their coach Stan Gouard, was a Division II national player of the year at Southern Indiana. He won a national title playing for Bruce Pearl. He knows what it entails.
“These guys proved today why they are league champs,” Gouard said. “We threw everything we had at them, and they didn't crack under pressure.”
Against a team that pressed throughout, Bellarmine turned it over just seven times. The Knights forced 13 Indianapolis turnovers, but this is what efficiency looks like. They turned those 13 turnovers into 23 points, against just four points off turnovers for Indianapolis. They hounded the Greyhounds into 37.9 percent shooting while shooting 51.8 percent themselves.
“That was a great college basketball game,” Davenport said. “. . . Two great teams. We knew it was going to be this kind of game.”
Davenport and his staff installed the “pack line” defense before the season. His team has become well-drilled in it. The pack line, being popularized by Tony Bennett at Virginia, in simplistic terms, has three players in position to defend the ball at all times. It encourages ball handlers to dribble into the help, with defenders running at shooters who spot up to defend perimeter shots.
“In the past, they'd beaten us ducking their head and driving and getting layups or getting fouled,” Thelen said. “We put in a new defense the first day of practice, and that defense has paid off very big for us. We stop drives. We don't give up as many layups.”
In the game's final minute, Davenport removed his seniors, one by one. Each embraced him as they left the court as the crowd of 2,196 gave them an ovation. Maynard was named to the All-Regional team, as was Whitehead. The Knights received their Regional trophy at center court, then took it as a team to hold up in front of the student section.
Patrick McSweeney, a St. Xavier High School student who is suffering from cancer, was there with the team,
, where he was given the chance to play for the Knights and to make a basket. He climbed the ladder to help cut the nets. The team plans to take him to Evansville.
Longtime Louisville assistant Jerry Jones didn't want to go up. The team insisted. He snipped a piece of the net. Maynard went looking for people to hand the scissors to. He got Jeremy Kendle, a guard on the 2011 national championship team, to take a cut.
“The last thing these guys say before they break the huddle is family,” Davenport said. “And they mean it.”
Now it's on to Evansville. The Knights won't play until a week from today, which means a day off Wednesday, then back to work. But this week's worth of practices, Davenport said, is priceless. One more week to work together in Knights Hall. One more chance to be around these teammates.
“We've got a week to get better,” Davenport said. “We will get better. We've got that sign right outside the locker room, ‘You've got to beat human nature. Never be satisfied.' We'll get back to work Thursday. These practices will be phenomenal. . . . We've got a rule — never delay gratitude. You've got to wear people out thanking them. We've got a lot of people to thank tonight.”
A long bus ride started it all. Now it's a short bus ride to Evansville in the hope of completing the goals they set on that quiet ride through snowy Indiana.
“I told them the other day,” Davenport said. “The rest of your life you will call upon that experience of setting a goal and then doing everything it takes, dedication-wise, sacrifice-wise, passion-wise, to make it come true.”
Right now, however, they're focused on only one goal. And it's just three victories, and one bus ride, away.
BELLARMINE 81, INDIANAPOLIS 72
At Knights Hall, Louisville, Ky.
INDIANAPOLIS (25-6): Loyd 7-18 4-4 23; Lawson 6-12 6-7 20; McElroy 5-9 0-0 10; Vieke 2-6 0-0 6; Parker 2-7 1-2 5; Barker 2-10 0-0 4; Gloyd 1-4 1-1 4; Crocker 0-0 0-0 0; Davidson 0-0 0-0 0; Kimbrough 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 25-66 12-14 72.
BELLARMINE (30-3): Thelen 10-12 4-5 24; Whitehead 5-12 9-13 19; Troutman 3-5 2-2 10; Suggs 3-9 2-2 9; Derksen 4-12 0-0 9; Sewell 2-4 0-0 4; Maynard 1-1 1-2 4; Parrish 1-1 0-0 2; Fredrick 0-0 0-0 0; Edelen 0-0 0-0 0; Bach 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 29-56 18-24 81.
Indianapolis.................. 32 40 - 72
Bellarmine.................... 35 46 - 81
3-point goals--Indianapolis 10-21 (Loyd 5-8; Vieke 2-5; Lawson 2-3; Gloyd 1-2; Barker 0-1; Parker 0-1; McElroy 0-1), Bellarmine 5-15 (Troutman 2-3; Derksen 1-4; Maynard 1-1; Suggs 1-4; Sewell 0-2; Whitehead 0-1). Fouled out--Indianapolis-None, Bellarmine-None.
Rebounds--Indianapolis 39 (McElroy 13), Bellarmine 35 (Thelen 15). Assists--Indianapolis 13 (McElroy 4), Bellarmine 16 (Whitehead 6). Total fouls: Indianapolis 22, Bellarmine 15. Technical fouls: Indianapolis-None, Bellarmine-None. Attendance: 2196
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