EDWARDSVILLE, Ill. (WDRB) – You can tell a team has been there before when the seconds tick off the clock at the end of a conference tournament championship game and the reaction is to flip the ball to the ref, slap a few hands and head to the line to shake hands with the other team.

I watched the Bellarmine basketball team after Sunday’s 75-61 Great Lakes Valley Conference Tournament championship win over Truman at SIU-Edwardsville’s Vadalabene Center. They hugged, they shook hands with Truman, they collected the trophy and their individual honors. Somebody brought over a ladder to cut down the net, and after Adam Eberhardt cut one strand, the team disappeared into the stands.

The players were hugging family members, shaking hands with supporters who made the trip, and when they made it back down to the court, they posed for team pictures.

At one point, they’re standing there, and they say, “Where’s Ben? We need to get Ben.”

Who is Ben, you ask? Ben Flanagan is the team’s bus driver. He took his place in the photo.

Over the past month, Bellarmine has played 7 of its last 8 games away from home. The players didn’t get on a plane for any of them. They went to McKendree, a 500-mile round trip. They went to Southern Indiana (260-mile round trip). They went to Rockhurst University in Kansas City (515 miles), then bused up to Truman State (166 miles) before coming back home (480 miles). After Senior Night last week, Bellarmine had a 540-mile round trip to the conference tournament.

Ben took them everywhere. He has taken them to Final Fours and more. He showed me his rings during a timeout in the second half.

The Knights climbed the ladder to cut down the nets. And again, “Ben, get up there.” He came down with his strand of net.

“Rings and a net,” he said, shaking his head, walking away. "That's something."

At one point, I was snapping a few pictures out on the court and Adam Eberhard, a sophomore who was named the tournament’s MVP, came up and said to me, “Thanks for making the trip. Appreciate you.”

He also said, “We saw the Twitter war you got in last night. That was great.”

Oh, about that. I Tweeted something about Bellarmine’s semifinal game, and somebody Tweeted back, “Who cares (sic)”

I couldn’t help it. I proceeded to tell him, more or less. I know that not as many people show up to watch Bellarmine (or follow me on Twitter to hear about the Knights) as, say, Louisville or Kentucky.

But the people who do care about the Knights, well, those people care a lot. And you watch how these players interact with friends and managers and bus drivers at the games and you see why.

They also can play. This team has played 7 of 8 on the road, won them all, is 28-2 on the season, consistently has one of the highest team shooting percentages at all levels of basketball and has made itself into one of the better defensive teams in NCAA Division II.

“All those road games, with a group of guys that it just doesn’t faze them,” Bellarmine coach Scott Davenport said. “They don’t complain. They don’t gripe. They appreciate everything that comes their way, but most importantly they appreciate each other.”

The Knights got off to a quick start on Saturday and led Truman by a dozen points after 10 minutes. But in the end, a program known for its shooting and passing won by being able to get the ball into the paint – and by being able to get stops.

Bellarmine didn’t make a single three-pointer in its GLVC quarterfinal victory, made only three in the semis and got just four on Sunday. What they got plenty of was points in the paint – a 44-16 edge against Truman, and it did that despite foul trouble for Alex Cook, who still finished with 13 points and 9 rebounds, but was limited to 21 minutes.

“In the middle of the year they kind of took on a new mentality that, ‘We like playing defense. We want to play defense.’ Not, ‘We’ve got to go play defense now,’” Davenport said. “That mindset – if you wake up every day and say ‘I get to go to work,’ instead of, ‘I’ve got to go to work,’ you’re going to have a better day at work. . . . We outscored them 44-16 in the paint. It kind of shoots down the notion that we’re just a bunch of guys that shoot threes.”

Brent Bach had a career-high 30 points and was Bellarmine’s leading scorer in the tournament. Eberhard had 21 points, 15 rebounds and 6 assists, and he conducted the postgame interviews with teammates.

“Brent, I’ve never seen you play like this before, what got into you?” Eberhard said.

“You know, I just try to come out and help the team in the ways that I think I can,” Bach said. “I think the whole team just played great. You being the outstanding player is awesome. And we’ve got to go back to work.”

How tough is Division II? Bellarmine is 28-2, and will be the No. 2 seed in its NCAA regional. No. 1 will be reserved for Ferris State ranked No. 2 in the nation, with only one loss on the season. The Knights will have to beat Ferris State on its home court, most likely, if they want to advance to the Elite Eight.

More travel. Ben will have the bus ready. If this team has shown anything, it’s that it doesn’t mind the road.

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