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'An unbelievable ride'

CRAWFORD | After first DI season ends in CBI loss to Pepperdine, Bellarmine already thinking encore

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Bellarmine huddle

Bellarmine huddles before Tuesday's 82-71 loss to Pepperdine.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- The game was over — and the season. The Bellarmine men’s basketball team sat in its locker room of the Daytona Convention Center after seeing an 11-point lead evaporate in the final 10 minutes of Wednesday’s CBI semifinal loss to Pepperdine.

It wasn’t one of those losses that sneaks up on you. Bellarmine ran out of gas, and Pepperdine lived up to its nickname, the Waves, crashing over the Knights with a 26-4 run on their way to an 82-71 victory, ending Bellarmine’s first NCAA Division I season with a record of 14-8.

After some quick remarks by coach Scott Davenport, junior guard Dylan Penn stood up, unprompted. He didn’t ask to speak. He just spoke.

"I've never enjoyed playing with a group of guys any more in my life, and we're all going to play together again next year," he said.

And with that, Bellarmine basketball turned the page on its historic 2020-21 chapter.

"Heads started bobbing," Davenport said. "What do smart people do? They learn from every experience, and this team has already started doing that."

This team had plenty of experiences to draw from.

"It was special beyond words," Davenport said when asked for his personal reflection on the season. "I like to talk a lot. That's well-documented. I can't put into words what it was like, because they're so special. Let's face it. I coached my whole life, and I was, two years ago January, I wasn't ever going to be a Division I head coach. Let's just be honest. And, I mean, I embraced that challenge. And the way you embrace it and get the most out of it — put the players first. Put them first. Because they deserve it."

This Bellarmine team moved from Knights Hall into Freedom Hall. It won 10 straight conference games in the ASUN. It won six straight road games. It played for the regular-season conference championship on ESPNU, in front of a Freedom Hall crowd that had to turn people away because of COVID-19 attendance restriction.

Along the way, it earned new fans and gave new pride to old ones. It could not get to the NCAA Tournament but embraced a chance to play in the CBI and learned from the trip. Stetson also played in the eight-team tournament.

"I was talking to Stetson’s coach — Donnie Jones is a great coach and he does a great job," Davenport said. "That was the first time they've ever played in the postseason since they've been a Division I school. We did it in Year 1. ... In Division II, we led the nation six out of the last 10 years in field goal percentage, and two of the other years we were in the top six. So that's eight out of 10. And I always said to people that I'm close to, 'I wonder if we could do this at a higher level.' You do. You ask that. Every coach does. You have aspirations. Today, Gonzaga leads the nation out of 358 teams. We're third."

But the shooting touch failed the Knights in the second half Tuesday, after torrid 64% shooting staked them to an 11-point lead in the first.

"You've got to give them a ton of credit. They were, in the second half, just dominant on both ends of the court," Davenport said. "Their ability to take us out of offense and push us out on the floor made the difference. We couldn't go inside-out and then they were able to get out in transition and we had no answers. In the first half, we made them run offense to get ahead by 9 points. They didn't have to run very much offense the second half. At all."

Then Davenport pivoted quickly. Because that, for Bellarmine, wasn’t the story of the night.

"The biggest story," he said. "Is that locker room right now. When the emotion subsided, that locker room was immediately talking about what they needed to do to get better. That was the whole talk after the game. Their reference point was next door, it was Pepperdine. When you get knocked down, that's what you want to see. And they got knocked down, got outscored the second half by 20, and they're in there talking, instead of blaming and pointing fingers, they're encouraging and saying, 'This is what we're going to do to get better.' They took us on an unbelievable ride, and they want more. And that bodes well."

Bellarmine does return every player on its roster. Two seniors who could have moved on are instead coming back. And Davenport, who saw games at UCLA and Gonzaga cancelled by COVID-19 in November, has promised his players to try to make next year’s experience bigger and better.

When asked what made Bellarmine’s first year so successful, Davenport gave a one word answer — then added a bunch more.

"Pride," he said. "Those players are a phenomenal representative for everything that's right in college athletics, on and off the court. The way that they represent their families, our university, our entire community, it's absolutely tremendous. I don't think any of us know how many people they touched. The stories that we get from all across the country, alumni, just basketball fans in general. I got a long e-mail today from a high school staff in New Jersey that they've been studying our offense. I couldn't even tell you the city. That's a reflection on these players. What I reflect on is that I can't wait to coach them again."

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