Notre Dame wins eighth-straight, punches ticket to NCAA Tournament Elite Eight

Notre Dame is rolling — right into the history books.

For the first time in 37 years, the Fighting Irish are headed to the Elite Eight after knocking off NCAA Tournament darling Wichita State 91-70.

Led by sophomore guard Demetrius Jackson’s 20 points and senior forward Pat Connaughton’s 16 points and 10 rebounds, three-seed Notre Dame downed the Shockers at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio on Thursday night.

“We really do a great job sharing the ball, finding a great shot every possession,” said Jackson postgame. “The guys step up and make huge shots. It’s a really fun way to play when we play the game that way so we want to continue doing that and continue getting better.”

In a total-team effort, Notre Dame (32-5) proved to be too much for gritty seventh-seeded Wichita State (30-5). The sharpshooting Irish drilled an astounding 75 percent of their shots in the second half (18-of-24).

After winning 11 of their last 12 games, the Shockers found themselves down by as many as 13 in the first half; however, the Shockers responded with a 15-5 run of their own, cutting the Irish lead to 33-30 going into the intermission.

Wichita State junior guard Fred VanVleet’s game-high 25 points and senior forward Darius Carter’s 20 were not enough to allow the Shockers to escape with a victory.

The nation’s most efficient offense in Notre Dame is now 26-2 when leading at halftime and 19-0 when scoring 80 points in a game.

“That was reminiscent of a lot of games we’ve been in, second halfs, it kind of reminded me of the North Carolina game in the ACC championship, we take the lead, call timeout, not a lot of drama, not a lot of strategy, and we come out of that with a great will, continue to defend and then we got into one of our offensive rhythms that nobody else in the country can do,” said Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey.

A mentality shift at halftime proved to be the difference for the Fighting Irish, who scored 40 points in the second half.

Senior guard Jerian Grant added nine points and 11 assists of his own while advancing to the regional final. The Wooden Award and Naismith Trophy finalist has played every minute of Notre Dame’s NCAA tournament run this season.

“Just figuring how they were playing me, it took longer than I would have liked but once I figured out how they were guarding the ball screens and denying me up top, we really got into a rhythm to play our game,” said Grant about his team’s second half success.

In critical moments late in the second half, Connaughton hit a 3-pointer from the corner and sophomore guard Steve Vasturia made a 3-point jumper of his own moments later to seal the victory, stretching Notre Dame’s lead from 11 to 17, 73-56, with 5:18 remining.

The Irish made nine 3-pointers, with Jackson drilling 4-of-5 from downtown.

“Extremely important,” said Connaughton of what that stretch meant to the outcome of the game. “We always talk about not being satisfied, whether it’s with a win or whether it’s just a possession in general.

“For us to not be satisfied with an 11 point lead because there was so much time left, they’re a fabulous team and they make runs and they can score in bunches just like us. We want to make sure that we continue to play our game, and when you have an open shot, you know with these two guys to my left and right, they’re the best at finding you and getting you open shots so you just have to step up and knock them down.”

Connaughton, a pitcher in the Baltimore Orioles minor league system has now played 138 games for the Fighting Irish, setting a school record.

Notre Dame defeated Northeastern and Butler by a combined seven points during the opening weekend of the tournament, where expectations have been high for Coach Brey’s team, even coming off a 15-17 season last year.

The 2014-15 ACC champion Fight Irish will play perennial favorite and unbeaten Kentucky on Saturday night in the regional final.

To beat the powerhouse – a consensus choice as one of the best college teams ever – and move onto their first Final Four appearance since 1978, Brey says he will continue to do what he has done throughout the season.

“One of the biggest qualities is do not overcoach your team when they’re rolling. Don’t call out too many — let them figure it out. This nucleus really knows how to play on the offensive end.”

No.2 Wisconsin survives No. 4 North Carolina to advance to NCAA Tournament Elite Eight

Sam Dekker scored a career-high 23 points and grabbed 10 rebounds as top-seeded Wisconsin defeated fourth-seeded UNC 79-72 Thursday night to head back to the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight for the second consecutive year, playing the winner of No. 2 seed Arizona versus sixth-seeded Xavier on Saturday.

Senior Player of the Year candidate Frank Kamisnky added 19 points and eight boards for Wisconsin, making all eight free throws he attempted. The Badgers attempted 23 free throws as a team, making 20 of them and their final eight down the stretch.

With the score 60-56 in favor of the Tar Heels and just seven minutes remaining in the game, Wisconsin went on a 9-0 run to take a lead it would not relinquish the rest of the way.

UNC, however, did not go down quietly as junior Marcus Paige hit back-to-back 3-pointers to cut the lead to 71-70 with 54 seconds left. Paige finished with 12 points, and was one of three Tar Heels to finish the game with double-digits. Forwards Brice Johnson and Justin Jackson each ended the contest with 15.

Head coach Roy Williams said he was “tired of congratulating people” but admired the toughness his team exhibited on this night.

“Well, you have to congratulate Wisconsin. I think the toughness that they showed today was really something,” Williams said regarding his team’s effort. “It’s strange, the difference between winning and losing is so small.

“We had J.P. on the breakaway, not a breakaway, but open court, and we didn’t convert on that one. Then they came back and scored nine in a row.”

Despite drilling 61 percent of their shots from beyond the arc, Williams’ squad could not sustain the pressure from the Badgers, who only shot 33 percent from downtown. Both teams attempted 56 shots total, and each shot 46 percent from the field.

When asked what guard Josh Gasser was doing to limit his offensive opportunities, Paige agreed with his coach and acknowledged Gasser’s competitive edge on the defensive side of the ball.

“Well, like coach said, he was just competing,” Paige said. “Every possession he understood how important it was for him to take that challenge today to guard me. He chased me around every screen. Every time I caught the ball he was right there.”

Going into the second half with a two-point lead, Wisconsin was able to turn it on offensively, led by efforts from Dekker and Kaminsky.

“Our defensive pressure is something we talked about coming into this game. We wanted to pressure them and not allow them to be comfortable, and we did that for the most part,” Paige said.

“The problem was we couldn’t finish our defense on key possessions. You know, they got a tip-out or offensive rebound and that’s how they made us pay today. They would kick it out and make a three, or run another 35 seconds off the clock.”

Jackson, who was tasked with guarding Kaminsky, was able to limit his chances in the opening 20 minutes, but they could not keep Dekker off the scoresheet. Instead, the junior embraced being given many chances, ending with a career-best in points.

“No, not at all. Obviously he’s a great player. We had some lapses in there, but good players are going to get theirs,” Jackson said regarding the play of Dekker.

Despite the trouble that Williams’ team went through off the court, the coach recognized the bond his players had, which helped him make this season an enjoyable one.

“You know, the bond that you have. Coach Alvarez knows this too, the bond that you have with your players is the strongest, stronger than anything there is, I thin,” he said.

“Even when they’re knuckle heads, you still have that bond. And when you coach kids, you give them everything you can give them. Today it wasn’t enough. But I wouldn’t trade my kids for anybody. And Bo’s got a great group, and Bo’s team won the game, but I wouldn’t trade my kids for anybody’s.”

Kendall Gray: A man among boys

Kendall Gray. (Courtesy Photo / DSU Athletics)
Kendall Gray. (Courtesy Photo / DSU Athletics)

Kendall Gray is known as the super-athletic beast who roamed Delaware State’s front court — a man among boys who pulled down 30 rebounds in 40 minutes in a regular-season game this year. But Gray, who finished second in the nation in rebounds (edged by 0.1 rebounds per game by UC Santa Barbara’s Alan Williams) didn’t start off this way.

“It’s kind of funny, actually, because my freshman and sophomore years I couldn’t buy a rebound even if I paid for it,” Gray says. “Being around the basket, I learned to get more tenacious in going after rebounds and not just standing around watching and waiting for them to come to me.”

That change in his mindset, combined with a new offensive system implemented by first-year head coach Keith Walker, led to Gray posting numbers of 11.7 points and 11.8 rebounds (12.4 during the regular-season) while shooting 55 percent from the field. Walker took over coaching duties towards the end of last season and switched the Hornets’ Princeton-style offense to an up-tempo system and saw right away that it was perfect for Gray’s game.

“Last year when I took over we had about 10 games left,” Walker recalls. “When I decided to change the system for the last seven or eight games, I looked at the stats and Kendall’s numbers were almost tripled. I think he went from averaging about three rebounds to nine and a half. Then he went from averaging five or six points for us to averaging 12 or 13.

“I laid it down and showed him the numbers and last year the leading rebounder averaged 11.5 or something like that, and I said, ‘This is an accomplishment you can get, this is a goal you can reach.’ He set his sights on that and was able to do it.”

“In high school I was always a great shot-blocker but not a great rebounder, so it was just knowing how to go after the ball and improving how to go after the ball,” Gray says. “I started using my athletic ability to go after rebounds with the best of my abilities more often.”

Kendall Gray. (Courtesy Photo / DSU Athletics)
Kendall Gray. (Courtesy Photo / DSU Athletics)

Gray also recorded a school single-season record 95 blocks this year (83 in the regular-season). He was named the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, just the second player in conference history to win both awards. He’s also the third player in Delaware State program history to earn Player of the Year honors.

“Being in this conference, I always knew I could win Defensive Player of the Year, but I didn’t know I could win Player of the Year. I just thank God, my teammates and my coaches,” Gray says. “Being around a mentor like Alex Stone, who’s been telling me all year, ‘Man if you go out there and play hard, you can actually do something special for Delaware State.’”

“He’s a great young man, you never hear any problems out of him. He’s very coachable, and he’s still in the learning phase so there’s a sense that his best basketball is still ahead of him,” Walker says. “He’s done some phenomenal things this year, but I don’t think he’s anywhere near his ceiling… It’s very rare that a player would be able to get both awards in any league. It shows how much respect the other coaches in the conference have for Kendall.”

The honor meant more the Gray because he did it for his home school. A military kid for most of his childhood, Gray moved around a lot to wherever his father, Winfret, was stationed. Gray was born in California, moved to Mississippi, and then to Texas, before his family finally permanently settled in Dover, Delaware when he was seven years old.

“The best friends I have now, I met them in the second grade, I’m so thankful to have them in my life,” Gray says. “It’s just a blessing to have the opportunity just to be here and do something in Dover that a lot of people can’t do. It’s a small city so everybody knows everybody and it’s just a great feeling when you can go out and talk to somebody on the street and you’ve known them for years… It’s awesome, just being here representing my family and friends and the state that I call home. It’s great having people in your corner coming to the games and supporting you. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

Looking back on his 30-rebound performance in the Hornets’ regular-season finale against Coppin State, in which he also scored a career-high 33 points in a 104-92 win, Gray credits his teammates for pushing him to grab everything in sight.

“My teammates were on the bench saying, ‘You have 12 rebounds at halftime so keep going, you have to get 20 rebounds,’” Gray says. “Then when I had 19 rebounds they said, ‘You have to get 25 rebounds!’ Then I got 25 rebounds and they said, ‘You have to get 30 rebounds!’ It was just my teammates supporting me, them being excited to be there watching me and I couldn’t have done it without them. They pushed me to be the best all season throughout practice and throughout games.”

“I think it’s his athleticism; he’s 6-foot-10, but in practice he works out with the perimeter players and the point guard,” Walker says of Gray’s prolific rebounding ability. “He’s such a great athlete, he runs the floor, has great lateral movement and quickness, and he really goes after the ball combining his instincts with his athletic ability.”

As Gray looks back at where he started to where he is now, he remembers that he didn’t start out as the great player he is now. He let that fact motivate him, and push him to put in the work to be in the position he’s in now: achieving greatness.

“Just being counted out a lot motivated me to be a better player and a better person. I was never a top-100 player in the nation, I was never thought of to be a player of the year, but it just motivated me,” Gray says. “My mom always told me to hold that grudge and prepare yourself for the best and the worst, just in case things don’t go as planned. I just put myself in position to go out there and do what I do best to help the team get victories, and that led me to winning these awards and I’m forever grateful for it.”

Kendall Gray. (Courtesy Photo / DSU Athletics)
Kendall Gray. (Courtesy Photo / DSU Athletics)

NCAA Tournament: OBW’s favorite Sweet 16 games

Believe it or not, the NCAA Tournament is already down to 16 remaining teams. The Sweet 16 starts Thursday, and that got us thinking: what are our favorite Sweet 16 games we’ve watched?

Sam Perkins and Doric Sam recount theirs below.

Sam Perkins

My favorite all-time Sweet 16 matchup came when 13th-seeded Valparaiso and eighth-seeded Rhode Island met in the 1998 Midwest regional semifinal — a battle between the two big Cinderella stories of that year’s tournament. Seventeen years later, I still vividly remember watching this game, as an eighth grader, with my dad.

Valpo’s path to the Sweet 16 was well told, and, thanks to Bryce Drew’s game-winning long bomb in the opening round against Mississippi, remains well known today.

But the Rams were a great story in their own right. The roster was largely built by Al Skinner before he left for Boston College, and they remained together under new head coach Jim Harrick. They featured future NBAer Cuttino Mobley, but they were a sum-is-larger-than-its-parts squad led by the dynamic playmaking of pint-sized point guard Tyson Wheeler and the heart of undersized power forward Antonio Reynolds-Dean.

The Sweet 16 matchup between two teams that had been written off by just about everyone entering the tournament didn’t disappoint — truly one of those games where neither team deserved to walk away with an L. This was a 40 minute war between two teams who simply did not want to go home, with the Rams and the Crusaders throwing haymakers from the opening tip until the final horn.

Rhode Island opened the game up 50-39 with a little over 18 minutes remaining on a big dunk by center Luther Clay — a moment most thought would be the final nail in the Crusaders’ coffin — only for Valparaiso to get up off the mat and throw a flurry of punches, cutting the Rams’ lead down to one, 64-63, with 3:54 left. But Reynolds-Dean took over in the game’s final minutes, coming up with two huge blocks at the rim, while converting a 3-point play at the other end, giving the Rams a sliver of breathing room en route to a 74-68 win.

After the game, the Crusaders and their fans provided one final, magical March moment. With thousands of fans remaining in the arena, chanting, long after the final horn, the entire Valpo roster — from the players, to the coaches, to the trainers and managers, none of whom had a dry eye — returned to the court for a final curtain call.

Doric Sam

I had to get over the heartbreak of Syracuse losing to Butler earlier that night, and I couldn’t stand to watch basketball so I missed the first half of Kansas St. vs Xavier. I tuned back in at some point during the second half, right in time for the barrage of three-pointers.
I remember how many times Xavier’s Terrell Holloway got fouled before the referees finally blew their whistle as he heaved up a three-pointer at the end of regulation, calmly knocking down all three free throws to force overtime. Then came Jordan Crawford’s 35-foot bomb that swished through the basket at the end of the first overtime (editor’s note: “Crawford’s gotta hurry! Uh?! Ohhhh!!!!” — Gus Johnson, on the call). Finally Kansas State’s Jacob Pullen, who was unconscious all night with six 3-pointers, hit two treys in the second overtime to seal the 101-96 win for the Wildcats.
This game had so many improbable shots go in that I couldn’t help jumping up and down like a fan as each shot went in. Normally my interest in the entire tournament would have dwindled after Syracuse was eliminated, but this game was a nice pick-me-up that reminded me why college basketball is so magical and made me want to see what happens in the next game.

NCAA Tournament: OBW’s favorite Cinderellas

T.J. Sorrentine. Photo Credit: Vermont Athletics / Sally McCay
T.J. Sorrentine. Photo Credit: Vermont Athletics / Sally McCay

This year’s NCAA Tournament is a tad short on the Cinderella story.

UCLA is the worst seed in the Sweet 16 at No. 11, and we all know the Bruins’ storied history. Wichita State and Gonzaga are the only Sweet 16 teams that don’t hail from a power conference. Neither could really be considered a Cinderella anymore, anyway, not with the Shockers two years removed from a Final Four, one year from a No. 1 seed and not even a week from a top-15 national ranking, and not with the Bulldogs, a No. 2 seed.

So Sam Perkins and Doric Sam took a trip down memory lane, recounting their favorite Cinderella stories from NCAA Tournaments past.

Sam Perkins

This is a really tough one for me. Although my earliest college hoops memories are of rooting on “Tark the Shark,” Larry “Grandmama” Johnson and the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels, and I grew up in the John Calipari “Refuse to Lose” UMass Minutemen family (where my father played college hoops way back in the day), I’ve always been a fan of college basketball’s Cinderellas and underdogs, so choosing just one is hard.

I have to give honorable mention to the Casey Calvary/Matt Santangelo/Quinton Hall “The Slipper Still Fits” Gonzaga team of the 98-99 season that went to the Elite Eight as a No. 10 seed — THE team in which the entire subsequent Bulldogs program has built upon. That was one hell of a tough, physical, gritty team that showed no fear against the college hoops big boys, knocking off No. 7 Minnesota, No. 2 Stanford and then a Florida team featuring about a half-dozen future NBA players — I can still remember watching that whole run as a high school freshman, screaming at my TV with my brother, my good friend Noah, and his younger brother.

Also major props to the Bryce Drew Valparaiso team of a year earlier that went to the Sweet 16 as a No. 13 seed, shocking No. 4 Mississippi with “The Shot” in the opening round, before beating Florida State. That Valpo team had so many great story lines — Drew playing for his father, Homer, and drilling big shot after big shot, including one of the most improbable, full-court inbounds plays in college hoops history; twins Bill an Bob Jenkins; foreign 7-footers Anatas “Tony” Vilcinskas (Lithuania) and Zoran Viskovic (Croatia) chief among them.

The University of Rhode Island team that ended Valparaiso’s magical run in 1998 also deserves recognition. The 1997-1998 Rams were one of the most fun teams I’ve had the pleasure of watching. Yes, they were a No. 8 seed, and thus in the top half of their bracket, and they came from the Atlantic-10 at the tail end of the league’s golden era when the A-10 was putting anywhere from 4-6 teams in the NCAA Tournament. But this was a URI squad that was overlooked and undervalued in its own league, and a squad that no one — and I mean no one outside of the that locker room — expected to go to the Elite Eight and be a minute and a half (and essentially a blown inbounds) away from the Final Four. The Rams were super physical and extremely talented, with 6-foot-5 power forward Antonio Reynolds-Dean bringing toughness, intangibles and a heart the size of a basketball, playing alongside a dynamic backcourt of Cuttino Mobley and pint-sized Tyson Wheeler. But they were also selfless and a team that’s sum remained far greater than its individual parts.

However, my favorite Cinderella of all time remains the 2004-2005 Vermont Catamounts. Don’t get me wrong, the 04-05 Catamounts don’t have the NCAA Tournament resume of the teams listed above — they won a grand total of one game. But the Taylor Coppenrath/T.J. Sorrentine Catamounts will forever have a special place in my heart because they were a team that I got to know on a far deeper level than any other Cinderella. I watched the senior class that carried them from the time they were wet behind the ears freshmen (“puppies” as head coach Tom Brennan called them) to the final horn of their careers — a second round (back when the “second round” was the field of 32) loss to Michigan State.

The Catamounts had legitimate high-major level stars in Coppenrath, a 6-foot-9 backwoods Paul Bunyon of sorts who was country strong and could score from anywhere on the floor, and Sorrentine, a scrappy, smack-talking spark plug who played with crazy swag and had range from anywhere inside the state line. Both Coppenrath and Sorrentine were completely overlooked by the basketball establishment, and both used that to fuel them through their careers.

But the Catamounts were more than a two-man team (although both Coppernath and Sorrentine were completely irreplaceable) with the rest of the roster not only knowing and embracing their respective roles, but excelling at them (with players like Germain Mopa-Njila and David Hehn bringing tenacious defense and rebounding).

What was great about the 04-05 UVM squad was that they spent the entire season with a bullseye on their backs, not only in the tiny America East Conference, but on the national level, with feature articles in both ESPN the Magazine and SI, while also being followed around by a camera crew for ESPN’s “The Season” and playing in the marquee matchup of the inaugural Bracket Buster. And they responded every time.

Their 60-57 shocker over Syracuse was one of the most amazing events I’ve ever experienced, with the Orange selling out to stop Coppenrath and Sorrentine at all costs, and Mopa-Njila stepping up to have the best game of his career in the biggest game of his life (20 points on 9-of-10 shooting to go with nine rebounds, five assists and four steals). And, of course, there was Coppenrath knocking down the elbow jumper to force overtime and Sorrentine’s “nah, coach, I got this” shot “from the parking lot” to win the game.

The Catamounts were the ultimate underdog that grabbed their one, fleeting, shining moment. They were the embodiment of why I love March Madness. They also had an incredibly special meaning for me, as I had started watching Vermont with my father three years earlier (he was a big fan of the late Trevor Gaines and of Sorrentine), and had continued to watch them after he was killed in a car accident in January of 2004.

The year since had been one of the worst of my life, and following the America East had given me one final connection to him that couldn’t be severed by death or heartbreak, and the impact of Vermont’s win meant much more in keeping his memory alive than I can put into words.

Doric Sam
I’m probably exposing myself as a young’n of the OBW staff with this pick, but I remember being completely encapsulated with the 2010-11 VCU team during my senior year at Stony Brook. I even used them as the subject of an assignment in a broadcast journalism class, having my professor pretend to be Shaka Smart while I interviewed her (I aced that assignment, by the way).

Shaka Smart just had this energy and swagger about him — it was fun watching a young coach, one who doesn’t wear a suit jacket during games as if it’s a fashion statement, running up and down the sidelines like a madman, something not normally seen from coaches on the big stage. The advent of the “First Four” that year seemed ridiculous to me at first, but it helped the Rams make history by being the first team to win five games to reach the Final Four. Their wins over Georgetown, Purdue and Florida State were impressive, but when they ran into No. 1 Kansas in the Elite Eight, I thought, “There’s no way.” But then power forward Jamie Skeen dominated inside and outside (four three-pointers) against the twin towers of Marcus and Markieff Morris on his way to 26 points and 10 rebounds.

The other true Cinderella team during my college basketball fandom was the 2005-06 George Mason team, but all that team really did was make me want to set fire to my bracket and say, “Who the f— is George Mason?” I wanted to know who VCU was, making that Rams team my favorite Cinderella squad of all-time.

Belmont basketball has a blast in NCAA Tournament

Craig Bradshaw backpedaled down the court, turned towards the sidelines, and bellowed out, “I called that,” with a huge smile sweeping across his face.

Bradshaw had just missed the rim by a solid two feet on a 3-point attempt, only to connect high up on the backboard, with his shot ricocheting perfectly into the bottom of the net, pulling his 15th seeded Bruins to within two of second-seed Virginia, 62-60, with 4:26 remaining in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

And now Bradshaw was having a blast.

Belmont would eventually fall 79-67 as the Cavaliers closed out the game on a 17-7 run, but it didn’t for a second diminish their magical year, capped by an improbable run to the tourney.

“First off, we played a great basketball team. Virginia made the winning plays in the last three minutes that we didn’t make, and they deserve to win. They were the better team,” Belmont coach Rick Byrd said after the game. “That being said, I’m certainly proud of our team’s performance, I’m proud of their fight and grit and determination and the plays that they made, and we played a great team.

“I don’t have the play-by-play but somewhere in the neighborhood of three minutes we had a real, real chance to win that basketball game and just didn’t get it done.”

Bradshaw led all scorers with 25 points, going 10-of-19 from the field and 5-of-9 from beyond the arc. The 6-foot-3-inch guard, who appeared to be playing at the ankles of the towering Cavaliers, also racked up nine rebounds.

Photo courtesy of Belmont Athletics
Photo courtesy of Belmont Athletics
“I don’t think you ever think you’re going to win the game against those guys, they string together some stops,” Bradshaw said. “I felt good about how I was shooting. We were running a good offense and they just made some good stops at the end, made more winning plays in the end.”

“When Craig plays like he did today and he’s obviously a first team OVC guy and played like that a lot he makes us a way better team,” Byrd added. “He’s fearless. He loves situations like that, that he’s in. Who he’s playing against and the circumstances in the game matter not to him at all. “

The Cavaliers entered the game leading the nation scoring defense at roughly 50 points allowed per game, but according to Belmont senior Reece Chamberlain, the Bruins handled the high-pressure defense well.

“They’re a great team, we knew that coming in, that the shots we normally get were going to come tough,” he said. “I thought we did a great job, and there’s only one stretch in the first half where we kind of got carried away and didn’t run offense but I think overall we did a pretty good job of moving the ball and working in until we got some good shots.”

For the Cavaliers, four players reached double digits, spearheaded by 22 from junior guard Malcolm Brogdon. Justin Anderson, who missed games from Feb. 11 to March 7, added 15 points and five rebounds in the winning effort.

“Well, I think he’s closer than he was a week ago obviously. He stepped back and made a three tonight and that had to make him all feel good,” Byrd said regarding Anderson’s performance.

“Overall he’s their best offensive player I think,” Byrd added. “But the beauty of their team is that you’ve got guys, Brogdon can do that, Gill can have a great game, what did he get, 16? You’ve got a lot of guys on that team that can score 15 or 16 points in a game and up can’t just focus on any one guy. They’re a better offensive team than they get credit for only because they’re such a great defensive team.”

Despite a sour end to the season, the future is bright for Belmont. Graduating only three seniors, the Bruins will return four of their five starters, and their top three scorers in Bradshaw, and rising juniors Taylor Barnette and Evan Bradds, who each played a staring role in getting the Bruins to the NCAA Tournament.

Both Bradshaw and Bradds exhibited excitement when they were asked whether or not they think they’ll return to the tournament next year.

“I don’t think you can say anything for sure but we have a really young team and Mack (Mercer) played great tonight and I’m really looking forward to his development,” Bradshaw said. “Amanze (Egekeze) is the starter, we’ve got really young guys, and I think we’re going to be really good next year. It’s up to us.

“Like he said we are very young. I’m excited, we all work really hard, so we’re just hoping we can work hard enough to get back here next year,” Bradds said.

Will Davis II leads UC Irvine into first NCAA Tournament

Will Davis. Photo Credit: UC Irvine Athletics
Will Davis. Photo Credit: UC Irvine Athletics

Will Davis II went to UC Irvine to win a championship and go the NCAA Tournament. It’s a journey that proved to be far longer and more winding than he had ever expected, but that much sweeter when he eventually reached his final destination.

“It feels great because looking back in 20 years at UC Irvine, you can say ‘oh it was Will Davis, Travis Souza and John Ryan’s class that led UC Irvine to their first NCAA tournament’,” says Davis, a senior forward and First Team All-Conference selection on leading the Anteaters to the first NCAA Tournament appearance in the program’s 38 year Division I history.

“It’s just great to make school history my last year here,” he says, before adding, “it definitely took a little longer than I thought.”

Humble beginnings.

Now standing 6’8” and 210 pounds, Davis was born and raised in Sacramento, Calif., one of Theresa and Will Davis Sr.’s five children. Davis says he was always a big kid with good athleticism, but picked up the game late and was far from a natural on the court.

“I was kind of a late bloomer in basketball because I didn’t play at all in middle school, so the first time I played organized basketball was probably my freshman year in high school,” says Davis, who didn’t make the varsity at Sacramento High School until his junior year and didn’t start until he was a senior. “I played JV my freshman and sophomore years, then I got moved up to varsity my junior and senior years.

As a senior, Davis averaged 11 points and 12 rebounds per game, earning All-Metro League honors, but he received only one Division I scholarship offer, from Air Force. It was then that Davis took a long look in the mirror, and decided that he had not given everything he had to the game, and vowed to get better, enrolling at New Hampton Prep, a prestigious prep basketball program in New Hampshire, while finally “getting serious” about basketball.

“I started getting more serious into working out going into my senior year at prep school, and obviously at college you have a staff that’s around you to work you out more, so that’s been a great experience in my development over the years.”

Playing in the NEPSAC, one of the best prep leagues in the country, Davis’ began to blossom, and scholarship offers started rolling in. But his heart still resided under the California sun, and when UC Irvine offered, Davis took a visit, and immediately fell in love.

“I went to prep school on the east coast in New Hampshire where I got that experience of being in that gray area, but then I decided I wanted to come back to California,” says Davis. “That’s where my family is from and I obviously love to have my family come up for games and that’s been a good experience.”

According to Davis, several coaches from far programs with far more storied histories tried to dissuade him from enrolling at UC Irvine.

“They said ‘why go there when you can come here and win,’” he says, ‘but I thought wherever I’d go I’d win.”

And according to Davis, the reception he received and culture of the program at UC Irvine was unlike any others he encountered during the recruiting process.

“UC Irvine was like a real family experience when I came on my visit here and that was different from the other visits I went on, so that was great.”

Davis made an immediate impact for the Anteaters, breaking the programs single-season record for most blocked shots in a single-season with 55 as a freshman, before smashing his own record with 88 rejections a year later (one more year later and 7’6” center Mamadou Ndiaye would break Davis’ record). As a sophomore, Davis earned the Big West’s award for Best Defensive Player and was named to CollegeInsider.com’s Mid-Major Defensive All-America team.

As a junior, Davis was a preseason first team All-Conference selection, but while he led the team in scoring and rebounds, was not selected for the award. But according to Davis, the far deeper sting came when the Anteaters, who had won the Big West regular season championship, were upset in the Big West Tournament.

“We really thought last year was going to be our year,” he says.

There were times during his senior year when things looked bleak for Davis and his Anteaters, who suffered through a litany of injuries, but Davis vowed not to go down without a fight.

“We’ve had injuries to John (Ryan), Dominique (Denning), Luke (Nelson), Mamadou (Ndiaye) and Alex (Young), so (Russell) Turner came up to me and told me I needed to take on more of a leadership role,” Davis said. “I felt like I could ride into that, being a senior leader on this team and also with Travis (Souza) and John taking on big loads as well.”

Davis led UC Irvine in scoring and rebounds, at 12.9 points and 7.0 rebounds per game, respectively, while shooting .541 from the floor and .707 from the line to earn Big West First Team All-Conference honors as a senior.

“It was great because last year I was picked in the preseason to be first team all-conference and I ended up not being on it, I didn’t have that well of a conference season last year,” he says. “This year I wasn’t picked, so that was a little more motivation for me to show the conference what kind of player I actually am. I

“It’s given me more confidence that head coaches from other teams vote on it, so it’s something that coaches from other teams have confidence in my ability to play.”

In the Big West tournament, he put the Anteaters on his back, posting double-doubles in all three games, averaging 15 points and 12 rebounds while shooting .667 from the floor to earn he tournament MVP honors and finally punch his ticket to The Big Dance.

“It’s an amazing feeling. This is what I came here to do, and it took us longer than I thought, but that makes it feel that much more incredible,” he says.

Now, Davis is focused on trying to write yet another new chapter in UC Irvine history tonight night when his No. 13 Anteaters team takes on No. 4 seed Louisville tonight in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

“The mentality right now is that we just gotta’ prepare. We know they have a great team and great coach in Rick (Pitino), so we’re not taking them lightly at all, and hopefully we can keep it close.”

Seth Hinrichs — The quiet leader of Lafayette basketball

Seth Hinrichs. OBW Photo / Chris Dela Rosa
Seth Hinrichs. OBW Photo / Chris Dela Rosa

Lafayette senior Seth Hinrichs spent his entire career playing in the shadows within the shadows of small conference basketball – a gritty, gutty forward who was always a key member of the ensemble cast, but never played a staring role.

He’s never complained. Instead, he’s simply worked harder.

And when the Leopards’ season hung in the balance in Hinrichs, a 6’8” forward from Clara City, Minnesota who averaged 13.1 points per game, stepped into the spotlight.

With four and a half minutes remaining on March 11, visiting American University was on a 19-5 run, and the Leopards were on the ropes, the life sucked out of previously rocking Kirby Sports Center.

That’s when Hinrichs let fly from beyond the arc.

Boom: 56-55 Lafayette.

A few seconds later, Zach Rufer drilled another 3-pointer. With four seconds remaining, and Lafayette leading 65-60, Hinrichs sealed American’s fate when he ripped down a defensive rebound, and the Leopards slipped on their dancing shoes and were headed back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2000.

“He doesn’t hit that shot, we don’t win the game,” says Lafayette basketball head coach Fran O’Hanlon. “He performed like he has in the last four years, he hit some big shots for us.”

In the eyes of O’Hanlon, it was only fitting that the game’s symbolic end came in the form of a Hinrichs’ rebound.

“One thing he always did, he always rebounds, he’s probably our best rebounder, he’s very unselfish in that respect,” says O’Hanlon of Hinrichs, who averaged 5.8 boards per game as a senior, and ripped down 562 rebounds in his career.

Over his four year career, Hinrichs has worn several hats, at different times playing the role of rebounder, low-post scorer, long range marksman and enforcer. And according to O’Hanlon, the two-year captain has never complained, or given anything other than his best effort.

“Since he’s come in, he’s just done things the right way, he has an aura about him, he cares very much,” says O’Hanlon. “You can see what respect the other kids have for him, at the end of the day they voted for him, it wasn’t me who selected him, they voted for him and that’s the guy they want to follow.”

According to Hinrichs, while knocking down jumpshots, pulling down rebounds in traffic, and throwing elbows on the court were second nature, leading the team was a bit of an adjustment.

“I think for me personally, I’ve had to grow as a vocal leader,” says Hinrichs. “Getting on the guys’ case and being vocal weren’t really my things, that was kind of a role I had to embrace more so especially last year continuing into this year.”

That leadership has carried over off the court, where Hinrichs often serves as an academic tutor and life coach of sorts to fellow athletes at the academic resource center.

“He leads on the court, he just works his tail off, I mean he’s so focused on school and basketball, he does a great job in that respect,” says O’Hanlon.

During Hinrich’s junior year, his first season as captain, the Leopards struggled, finding themselves in the basement of the Patriot League after being riddled with injuries all season long. A hobbled Hinrichs was limited to just 20 games, due to injury, really hurting his squad. However, when he did play, he was able to contribute plenty as he still led the team in scoring with 16.3 points per game.

“My junior year I was averaging more because I felt that was one of the things I needed to do in order for us to win,” says Hinrichs.

Entering his final season as a Leopard, Hinrichs’ role began to change dramatically. After two years of being the main producer for the team, Hinrichs saw his touches diminish as fellow forward Dan Trist emerged as the team’s top scorer and go-to offensive option, earning First Team All-Patriot League honors.

As always, Hinrich was unfazed by a changing role.

“I don’t want to say he took a backseat, the only thing Seth cares about is winning,” says O’Hanlon. “His numbers weren’t as flashy as some of the past years, but his whole goal was to win.”

As the season’s end loomed in February, and the Leopards continued to sputter, Hinrichs’ passion to win became even more evident as he and the other seniors on O’Hanlon’s squad began to realize the end was sooner than they realized.

“After playing our senior game against Army, we thought it was the end and it was kind of like this might be our last time playing at home and it kind of hit you where it was now or never if you want to win a championship, if you want to solidify your legacy at Lafayette,” says Hinrichs.

The Leopards struggled to find consistency during the regular season, finishing in fourth place in the Patriot League, going 9-9 in conference play. But after coming close enough to taste the NCAA Tournament as a sophomore, advancing to the 2013 Championship Game only to lose to Bucknell, Hinrichs wasn’t about to go quietly in the final games of his career.

“This a three-game season right now, either you win or go home, the playoffs were the most important week and a half of all year, this is what it comes down to, this is what we work for,” says Hinrichs of the mindset he bestowed upon his teammates entering the Patriot League Tournament.

“We’ve been here before too, we have an experienced group, we know what to expect as well, just kind of relaying that to the guys.”

The Leopards responded with a 25-point destruction of Boston in the opening round, before going on the road to knock off top-seed Bucknell, avenging their heartbreak of two seasons ago, setting the stage for their dramatic championship game over American.

“We’re an experienced team, we’ve been in the championship before, we have the talent to do it, it was just a matter of putting together three good games and I think we did that,” said Hinrichs.

Hinrichs knows the 16th-seeded Leopards will be decided underdogs when they face off against 1-seed Villanova tonight, but he’s determined once again to not let his career come to a quiet end.

“Anything can happen,” he says, “and we’re going to leave everything we have out there.

North Dakota State’s A.J. Jacobson: His mother’s son

A.J. Jacobson. (Courtesy Photo / NDSU Athletics)
A.J. Jacobson. (Courtesy Photo / NDSU Athletics)

There’s a certain satisfaction college basketball fans get while watching a hometown kid competing for his hometown school. Depending on the closeness of the community, the player can be considered the son of an entire city.

In A.J. Jacobson’s case, it’s more like he’s the son of an entire state.

Jacobson grew up in Fargo, North Dakota and is the son of famed North Dakota State women’s basketball legend Pat (Smykowski) Jacobson, the all-time second-leading scorer in the program’s history. Now A.J. is carving his own path for the Bison as a redshirt freshman and second-leading scorer for a team headed to its second straight NCAA Tournament.

“He’s a Fargo kid and in a lot of ways, not to steal a nickname from Fred Hoiberg, but in a lot of ways he’s our Mayor,” North Dakota St. coach David Richman says. “He’s a Fargo kid who’s now playing here and he’s having success. He’s the North Dakota Class A all-time leading scorer, there’s a lot of expectations for him from a lot of people, but none greater than from himself and I think that’s what separates him.”

According to Jacobson, it was always a dream of his to attend North Dakota St., not to follow in his mother’s footsteps, but to truly experience the culture he had watched while growing up in Fargo.

“It was more me wanting to be a part of the North Dakota State family, the culture here is just unbelievable,” Jacobson says. “Obviously, being from Fargo played a role, but I didn’t really think about my mom going here in my decision-making… It’s home to me, that’s why I stayed around here and I love it here.”

But this isn’t your typical story of a men’s basketball player being pushed by his father to achieve the same athletic accomplishments. While Jacobson’s father David is very much part of the reason A.J. is the person he is, it was Pat who was the main part of the reason A.J. is the player he is. She would drive A.J. to the gym and stand under the basket as his personal rebounder, imparting her knowledge onto him.

“She was always pushing me to get better and pushing me to do things that other kids wouldn’t be doing,” Jacobson says of his mother’s influence on his athletic career. “She always said I need to finish with my left hand on the left side of the hoop, she forced me to use good form. She was always in my ear giving me positive encouragement and positive criticisms.”

A.J. Jacobson. (Courtesy Photo / NDSU Athletics)
A.J. Jacobson. (Courtesy Photo / NDSU Athletics)

“There’s no question, I think both his parents were big in making him who he is and making him the competitor that he is,” Richman says. “It’s an extremely competitive family, and that really set the tone and set the stage. Pat, his mom, is the second all-time leading scorer in the school’s women’s basketball history. When you grow up in that environment, you can’t help but pick up some things along the way.”

Playing in the shadow of his mother’s accomplishments, Jacobson says it makes him even more driven to forge his own path and leave his own mark on North Dakota St.

“It’s no pressure really, but it’s a little bit motivation,” he says. “She was one of the greatest players to ever play on the women’s side, and it’s something that I can aspire to be like. But it’s not any pressure, it’s more of a motivating tool.”

Richman saw that drive and motivation first-hand during Jacobson’s redshirt year.

“There was really a want to be great,” Richman says. “A.J. would have a tough practice, as a lot of true freshmen did, and he’d be in the gym at 8 a.m. the next morning working on something he didn’t do well. I think that’s the biggest thing—there’s a drive, there’s a want to not just be good but to be great by A.J., and that makes him special. Obviously he’s got good size at 6’6”, a high level of skill and he’s a really intelligent young man, but make no mistake, his best qualities are his want and his drive to be great.”

A.J. Jacobson. (Courtesy Photo / NDSU Athletics)
A.J. Jacobson. (Courtesy Photo / NDSU Athletics)

This year, Jacobson played a key role in leading the Bison to their second straight Summit League title, ranking second on the team with an average of 11.9 points and shooting 41 percent from three-point range. As one of two in-state players on the roster, Jacobson feels an immense sense of pride in helping to lead North Dakota St. to the promise land of the NCAA Tournament, but that pride isn’t new to him. He feels it every time he puts on his jersey with the letters “NDSU” on his chest.

“I want to go out there and compete for the North Dakota fans, obviously they like seeing a North Dakota kid on the team,” Jacobson says. “I grew up watching North Dakota State, I went to almost every single game I could go to, men’s and women’s. It was a dream of mine to come and play here and I was able to fulfill those dream and obviously it gives me a sense of pride in the culture here, the environment here and North Dakota State in general.”

“He’s grown up here, the community’s always been in his family. He’s been coming to this campus as long as we can remember, watching his mom and coming to our games. There’s no question, it’s a big part of what makes him successful,” Richman says. “Would he be successful at other programs? Absolutely, there’s no doubt in my mind. But here with the understanding of the makeup and the history and passion with him and his family, I think that adds to [the pride he feels].”

North Dakota St. received a No. 15 seed and will face No. 2 Gonzaga in the South Region on Friday. As the Bison go out with intentions to spoil some brackets, Jacobson relishes the opportunity to put North Dakota St., and the state of North Dakota, on the college basketball map.

“Obviously we want to get a win and go up there with a bang,” he says. “But we just want to go out there and compete and play hard and show the country what North Dakota State men’s basketball is all about.”

A.J. Jacobson. (Courtesy Photo / NDSU Athletics)
A.J. Jacobson. (Courtesy Photo / NDSU Athletics)

Hampton basketball: A collect call to Jesus before playing Kentucky

Hampton head coach Ed Joyner. Photo Credit: Hampton Athletics
Hampton head coach Ed Joyner. Photo Credit: Hampton Athletics / David Wegiel Jr. 

Ed Joyner had Jesus on speed dial after Hampton knocked off Manhattan in the NCAA Tournament First Round on Tuesday night. The messiah answered, but once the Pirates’ head coach asked about his team’s chances of knocking off their next opponent, undefeated Kentucky, Jesus hung up on him.

At least, that’s the story Joyner told in the post game press conference.

It comes with Hampton basketball’s new standing in the hoops world: Straight underdog status, the term guard Reggie Johnson used to describe his team’s upcoming game against Kentucky.

After defeating Manhattan 74-64, the Pirates will now try and pull off one of the greatest upsets in college basketball history and hand the No. 1 seed Wildcats their first loss of the season.

“We got nothing to lose,” Joyner said. “We’re gonna’ go out and play, try to execute our game plan and try to win the game.”

Against the offensive juggernaut that head coach John Calipari has assembled down in Lexington, Joyner may need Jesus on his side to simply have a prayer against the Wildcats.

Led by future lottery picks Will Cauley-Stein (7’) and Karl Anthony-Town (6’11”), the Wildcats went 34-0 in the regular season, winning all 18 games in conference play before taking home the conference tournament title.

“They have nine or ten pros over there, so we’re just gonna’ try and make every shot hard and make them play a little defense by moving the ball and keeping them off the glass,” Joyner said.

With Kentucky’s roster full of NBA-talent, led by their twin towers up front, Joyner’s front court will have its hands full. But according to their head coach, Hampton isn’t intimidated.

“The biggest parts of it will be Jervon (Pressley) and Emmanuel (Okoroba) and Charles (Wilson-Fisher),” said Joyner. “Quinton (Chievous) will also be in there, but of course he’s well on the side. Those three guys are gonna’ have to go battle their tails off and hopefully try and contain them a little bit,” said Johnson. “I think it’s going to be very important. It’s gonna’ be important for them to stay out of foul trouble, one, and to go at them and make them play defense as well.”

Chievous, who recorded a double-double of 15 points and 13 rebounds against the Jaspers before getting injured, acknowledged the performance of Pressley in the game versus Manhattan. However, he knows the Wildcats are a far different animal than the Jaspers.

“I feel like it’s gonna’ be a lot different because they have so many options in the front court. We just gotta’ go out and play tough,” said Chievous.

Besides the big men the Wildcats possess, they also have a dynamite backcourt. Directed by twins Andrew and Aaron Harrison, Chievous and Co. will have to limit the opportunities these two are able to create in the offensive end.

“We’re just gonna have to defend,” Joyner said. “They’re definitely talented players, we gotta stay in front of them and make them take tough, contested shots.

“Hopefully they’re missing more than they make.”

Johnson, who recorded 15 points, five rebounds and five assists in the play-in game, will have to spearhead the Pirates back court defense.

“It’s definitely a great opportunity,” he said. “We know those guys are great guards in college basketball and it’s an opportunity for us to come in and play a good game. We’re a guard-heavy team, so it’s gonna be a great game guards-on-guards.”

Joyner is also counting on a big effort from point guard Deron Powers. The 5’11” junior tallied eight points and dished out seven assists against the Jaspers, and will have to use his quickness to get by the Kentucky defense in transition.

Regardless of what happens in the game Thursday night, Chievous is incredibly proud of all that his team has accomplished this year, and thankful for tonight’s opportunity.

“It’s amazing, first off we’re the only team in MEAC history to have two NCAA tournament wins,” he said. “We’re so happy and blessed right now that we got passed the first round and will always be remembered at our school and hopefully we can be remembered even more if something happens against Kentucky,”