Montevallo to Play for the National Championship!
The University of Montevallo took one more step towards realizing their ultimate dream on Thursday night as they upended defending national champions Bellarmine 79-72 in the national semfinals at the Bank of Kentucky Center in Highland Heights, Ky. The Falcons, who won their first game in three Elite Eight appearances on Wednesday, will now play for the Division II National Championship on Saturday at 1:00 against Western Washington.
The Knights, ranked #4 in the NABC poll, came up short in their quest to become the first back-to-back champions since 1994, but started the game off strong, holding a six-point lead with under nine minutes to play in the first half. UM responded with eight straight points to take their first lead of the game 21-19 as Jonas Brown hit two three-pointers on either side of a D.J. Rivera fast-break layup.
With the score tied at 24, Bellarmine went on a run, as Chris Dowe hit a three, stole the ball on the next possession and converted a layup in less than 40 seconds. Another Brown three from the Falcons tied the game again at 31, but Bellarmine had another answer as Corbin Maynard drained a three and Jeremy Kendle, named the NABC Player of the Year earlier in the day, had a layup. Montevallo’s Drico Hightower had two layups in the final 1:19 to trim Bellarmine’s lead to 36-35 at the half.
The Knights opened the second half the way they opened the game: by establishing an early lead. Dowe’s three to open the period was followed by his layup as Kendle also connected to give Bellarmine a 46-39 lead with 17:13 to play.
Montevallo put on a shooting clinic in the second half, connecting on 58.6% (17-29) of their shots. Antone Davis began the comeback with a running layup in the paint which was followed by two straight buckets from Rivera. A pair of Hightower free throws tied the game at 51 with 13:24 to play and Rivera’s layup on UM’s next possession gave them a lead they would not relinquish.
UM led by six following a free throw from Marvin Fitzgerald, but Bellarmine answered with another Dowe three-pointer to cut the lead to three. The Knights would trim the lead down to two on a three-pointer by Braydon Hobbs with 8:32 to go.
They would not score again for seven minutes.
Montevallo put the game away with an 11-0 run, turning to their defense to lead the way. Bellarmine missed 13 consecutive shots from the field, 10 of those three-point attempts, as Montevallo opened up a 73-60 lead with 1:04 to play, quieting the Bellarmine-heavy crowd of 4,213.
“When you take a quick shot or have a quick turnover against a team like that, there’s no defense for that,” Bellarmine coach Scott Davenport said.
The Knights broke the drought with 43 seconds to play as Jelani Johnson hit a jumper and Bellarmine closed the gap to within five with 11 seconds left. Montevallo was saved by their free throw shooting, which had been their Achilles heel to that point of the game. The Falcons made six of eight free throws in the final 37 seconds; they had only hit eight of their first 21 attempts prior to that stretch.
Rivera exploded for 23 points to lead all scorers. The senior All-American hit 11 of 15 shots from the floor and added nine rebounds. Davis again came close to triple-doubledom with 12 points, nine rebounds and six assists. Hightower and Brown added 13 each while Fitzgerald led the team with 10 rebounds.
“You can’t compare this,” said Rivera, a nephew of the late Hank Gathers from Loyola Marymount. “This is the best time of my life right now, no matter where I am.”
Montevallo shot 54% (30-55) in the game and hit half of their three-point attempts. The Falcons also dominated the glass, outrebounding Bellarmine 43-28 and owning a 13-4 advantage in second-chance points. UM once again owned the block, outscoring the Knights 44-16 in the paint.
“We changed the way we were running our offense, and these guys ran it to perfection and we got a lot of easy baskets,” Montevallo head coach Danny Young said. “I think it finally wore on them down the stretch.”
Dowe finished with 18 points and nine rebounds for Bellarmine before fouling out with eight seconds to play. Kendle added 16 and five assists while Braydon Hobbs scored 13.
Montevallo becomes the third Peach Belt Conference team to reach the NCAA National Championship Game. Kennesaw State won the league’s only men’s basketball title in 2004. Augusta State reached the final in the first of their three straight Elite Eight appearances in 2008.
Montevallo will face Western Washington, the west region champion, in the final. Western Washington defeated Stonehill 71-66 in Thursday’s first semifinal. The game will be televised nationally on CBS at 1:00 eastern time. An average of 3.1 million viewers have seen this game in recent years.
You can see video highlights of Thursday's game through NCAA.com.