In the major middle leagues of college basketball, winning the conference tournament is often the only reliable way for a team to secure its NCAA tournament bid.
But even before the Bellarmine men’s team defeated Jacksonville 77-72 in Tuesday’s ASUN Conference championship game, it had no chance of qualifying for the national tournament.
Bellarmine, a private Catholic university in Louisville, Ky. with approximately 2,400 undergraduate students, was reclassified from Division II to Division I last season. Under NCAA rules, it must complete a four-year transition period to deal with rule changes. maintain a higher levelduring this time is not eligible for the national tournament.
That’s why the Knights had the home advantage and the backing of their fans at Freedom Hall on Tuesday, while also having the backing of Jacksonville State in Alabama. When Bellarmine was blocked from receiving an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, the points fell to Jacksonville State instead as Jacksonville State won the regular season championship, despite losing to Jacksonville in the ASUN tournament semifinals. This will be the Gamecocks’ first NCAA tournament since the 2016-17 season.
For the Knights, it may seem unlikely to play any games beyond the conference tournament after a 0-5 start, but the losses were for good teams. Bellarmine coach Scott Davenport said at a post-match press conference that “leadership has begun” from the team captains at that point in the season.
Davenport said his team’s prospects of playing in the National Invited Tournament were “totally out of control” as it was governed by the NCAA.
“I don’t know how any coach at any level, any sport, could be more proud than I am,” he said.
Bellarmine won the ASUN tournament with the help of the 3-pointer shot, which was a key component of her success in Division II: The Knights hit 40.1 percent from the 3-point range when they closed their Division II tenure in the 2019-20 season by winning. An NCAA tournament prior to the coronavirus pandemic forced the bid to be cancelled. And in the 2016-17 season, they scored a show’s best 312 three-pointers when they played one of the four Division II Final Four games of the 2010s.
On Tuesday, the Knights shot 12 out of 25 at long range. CJ Fleming shot 11/11 from 3-point range and was the leading scorer of all scorers with 27 points. Dylan Penn added 22 points on 9/15 field goal shooting and won the tournament’s Most Valuable Player Award.
The impossibility of reaching the NCAA tournament did not dampen the excitement of Bellarmine fans, who rushed to the field after the final bell.
“I looked at the line and saw that they were all coming,” Fleming said. “I turned around and we were surrounded. It’s such a great feeling.”
Last year’s ASUN men’s tournament final also had a transitional specter. Liberty took the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament prior to the tip due to North Alabama’s unsuitability, then still won the game.
Other teams also missed the national tournament due to the transition period. Just last season, the California Baptist women’s program made an undefeated run to the Western Athletic Conference tournament title, but failed to qualify for the NCAA tournament.
Along with Jacksonville State, Bryant, Delaware, Wright State, No. 1 Gonzaga and the State of South Dakota also clinched automatic bids on Tuesday.
Bryant’s game was festive as the home team dominated the Northeast Conference tournament championship in the second half. The victory over Wagner sent the Bulldogs into their first NCAA tournament since moving to Division I in 2008, but will be remembered with a delay of more than 20 minutes due to a fight near the two student divisions where Bryant was 36 points ahead. Less than five minutes left.
Police at Chace Athletic Center, Bryant’s on-campus arena in Smithfield, RI, escorted fans from the stands, including most of the Wagner troop. Wagner’s Will Martinez was unsuccessful and tried to enter the stands and was ejected for coming off the bench.