March 14th, 2012

They're Back: Bellarmine Returns To Elite 8

Paul Najjar

CSN Staff Writer


They're Back: Bellarmine Returns To Elite 8
photo by Chris Jung

MOP Dowe records double-double in Regional final win

Senior leadership, coupled with superior, experienced talent has proven to be a winning formula for the Bellarmine Knights basketball team.

In the NCAA Division II Midwest Regional, Bellarmine head coach Scott Davenport used that combination to navigate through the most difficult regular season schedule in the country and then to overcome rival Kentucky Wesleyan College for a third time in six weeks en route to securing a spot in the Elite Eight March 21-24 in the Bank of Kentucky Center at Northern Kentucky University.

The Knights will head to the Elite Eight as the No. 4 ranked team in the nation and with a 28-3 record.

While the 79-74 Bellarmine victory looked typical on the stat sheet—five players in double figures, a shooting percentage over 50 percent (50.8), an opponent’s shooting percentage under 43 percent (39.1), a high assist to made basket ratio with 18 on 31 made shots—nothing about this game was typical.

Not with the fight that the Panthers brought to the Knights in front of a raucous, packed to the rafters Knights Hall.

Not with the home team having to play without senior center Luke Sprague and his 12 points and 5 rebounds per game and the experience of his 89 career starts.

Perhaps the only things typical about this regional final were the performances of some of the finest players in all of Division II, all wearing a Bellarmine uniform with K-N-I-G-H-T-S across the front.

With current GLVC Player of the Year Braydon Hobbs nearly recording a quadruple double on 14 points, 7 boards, 8 assists and a Dikembe Mutombo-esque 7 blocks; with the 2011 GLVC Player of the Year Jeremy Kendle adding 19 points and 3 assists; and with the Midwest Regional Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player Chris Dowe dropping 21 points, 10 rebounds and 6 assists and seemingly doing whatever he wanted on the court.

Grand Knights, all of them.

“Honestly, the tournament felt a little different this year,” said Dowe. “I think it’s because of experience. Me, Jeremy and Braydon told all the younger guys who haven’t been through this before to not panic if things don’t go our way. We’ve been in this situation before and we’re going to pull it out. Richie (Phares) and Jelani (Johnson) stepped up big.”

Richie Phares started in place of Sprague and though limited to 10 minutes of game time, contributed 10 points. Junior Jelani Johnson, who played a season-high 35 minutes, came off the bench and played lockdown defense on whomever was in front of him, added 11 points of his own and came away with 4 rebounds.

Phares and Johnson were two important parts of a very strong whole.

The Knights big three of Hobbs, Kendle and Dowe dominated the game when the time was right. Not one of them stuck out, but all of them reared up and took a bite out of the Panthers whenever it was needed. An open lane to the basket and there was Hobbs and his long arms swatting away a shot; an important rebound to help de-rail a KWC comeback and there was Dowe soaring above the fray to snatch it; a basket to help extend the Knights lead and there was Kendle taking it to the rim and converting.

“I’m just so proud of everybody,” said Kendle. “Luke went down and guys stepped up. The atmosphere in here was amazing, second to none.”

Kendle, in what appeared to be an odd match-up, was assigned to defend the 6’7”, 255lb Young for a good portion of the game. He fronted the agile Young and harassed him enough to hold him under his season average of 20 points (17 for the game) and helped force the Panthers offense out of their rhythm.

“We front the post and we had Richie and Braydon and Jelani waiting for him if he received a lob pass,” explained Kendle. “Those guys could size him up in the post better than me, so we decided to have me on him trying to frustrate him on the perimeter and those bigger guys waiting from him inside.”

This was a battle between two teams that knew each other inside out, between two coaches who came to their schools seven years ago and have played 18 times in that span with Bellarmine now holding a 12-6 edge. The difference was in found in those odd moments, those moments for which neither team was prepared. One misstep; one bad pass; one missed assignment could mean an easy basket.

“I didn’t want it to be Luke’s or Braydon’s or A-Rob’s (senior Aaron Robison) final game,” said Johnson. “With Richie in some foul trouble, I had to play bigger than I am. I’m just fortunate to play with these guys and to be in this position.”

Johnson and his co-horts were determined to extend their season for their fallen teammate. Tied at 31 at the half, they took control of the second half with a 20-11 scoring burst to take a 51-42 lead at the 11:13 mark and seemed poised to take a double-digit lead after KWC head coach Todd Lee was assessed a technical foul. Hobbs missed the free throws, and that made every possession thereafter a scramble for survival.

Every time the Panthers got within four points, the Knights responded. A three by Johnson with 8:19 left; a runner in the lane by Dowe at 6:04; a Dowe two-handed follow jam that broke the Panthers’ backs at 2:57.

You get close to this team and they bring the heavy artillery right back at you.

“These players, with Luke going down, all year they were the hunted,” said Davenport. “They knew that and they answered the bell playing the toughest schedule in school history. And then tonight, they step up. The leadership we had from Braydon Hobbs, Jeremy Kendle and Chris Dowe was astounding and I’m thrilled for them. I’m just glad these kids let me be a little part of this because it’s all about them.”

NOTES

  • Wanted: two nets for Knights Hall gym for Colorado State and Iowa State. Both teams are using Knights Hall for their practice sessions as they ready themselves for the NCAA Division I tournament.
  • Hobbs, on his 7 blocked shots: “I’ve been playing the five role and it’s just something that happened. I missed a couple of others, too. We played him (Young) pretty well defensively. With Jeremy on his legs, we were able to force him to do some things they didn’t want to do.”
  • Sprague thanked his teammates in the locker room after the game. And the theme, “We’re not done yet,” was spoken often among the team members.
  • KWC was limited to 27-69 shooting (39 percent), well below their season average of 48.9 percent.
  • The Panthers outrebounded Bellarmine 43-32, with 18 of those coming on the offensive glass.
  • The Knights’ 10 blocked shots were a season high.
 

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