EVANSVILLE, Ind. — Top-ranked Florida Southern used a strong half defensive effort Wednesday evening to punch its ticket to the Division II semifinals following its 81-70 victory against Southern New Hampshire in the third quarterfinal game of the Elite Eight at the Ford Center.
The Moccasins, who improved to 34-1 overall and extended its school record win streak to 23 consecutive victories, held the Penmen to 36 percent shooting from the field after halftime and closed the game on a 27-16 run after SNHU had tied the game on a three-point play by Elijah Bonsignore with 9:38 left in the contest to seal the win and advance to the national semifinal round for the first since 1999 when the Mocs fell 87-67 to eventual national champion Kentucky Wesleyan in Louisville, Ky.
FSC will now face third-ranked Bellarmine (31-3) in the second of Thursday’s two national semifinal games at the Ford Center. Bellarmine advanced to the semifinals with a 92-75 win against fourth-ranked Minnesota State-Moorhead Wednesday evening.
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“I thought we played a very good team in Southern New Hampshire tonight,” Moccasin head coach Linc Darner in the postgame press conference. “They came out at the start of the game and hit about everything they shot and got every rebound. Once we got our pressure going and were able to score on them, we started getting turnovers which is our biggest key.”
The Mocs closing run began with a lay-up by junior guard Dylan Travis and the lead grew to 60-54 on a lay-up by senior guard Tyler Kelly with 7:41 left, before Drew Gilligan hit a trey to drop FSC’s lead to 60-57.
FSC, though, would then use a 9-4 run capped by a three-pointer from sophomore guard Michael Volovic to push out to a 69-61 advantage with 4:48 left in the game. After two free throws from Elijah Bonsignore dropped the Mocs lead to 69-63 with 4:31 left, the Mocs would answer with an 11-0 run to put the game out of reach at 80-63 following a dunk by senior forward Bubby Johnson.
The Penmen, who closed the season with aa 24-8 record, would score seven of the game’s final eight points to close the scoring.
“The first game of the regional tournament and the first game of the Elite Eight are the toughest. We played in the Elite Eight two years [in Louisville] and got down and couldn’t overcome it,” said Darner. “This year I think we did a better job of that.”
Leading the way offensively for the Mocs was senior two-time All-American guard Kevin Capers as he finished the night with 28 points, five rebounds, five assists and six steals. It marked Capers’ 22nd consecutive double-digit scoring effort this season and his 107th of his Moccasin career. He scored 14 points in both halves of Wednesday’s win.
In addition to Capers, Volovic, who was playing a little less than three hours from his hometown of Carmel, Ind., finished 13 points, while Johnson added 10 points in the win.
“It was fun to play that way back at home tonight. One of the biggest things tonight was my high school coach was in the stands,” Volovic said. “I just wanted to play the way I know I was capable of playing. These last few games I’ve been in a slump, but my teammates and Coach Darner have put so much confidence in me.
“I didn’t hesitate to shoot it and I had it going tonight. It felt good.”
Two of the biggest keys in the Mocs win was their ability to force turnovers and its 12 shot advantage at the free throw line in the game.
For the game, FSC forced SNHU into 24 turnovers that led to 28 points, including forcing 17 turnovers in the first half that led to 20 points and the Mocs were 16-for-21 from the free throw line, while SNHU went 7-for-9 at the line, all of which came in the second half.
“You’re not going to win many basketball games when you turn the ball over 24 times and are outshot at the free throw line, 21 to 9,” SNHU head coach Stan Spirou said in the postgame press conference.
B.J. Cardarelli led the way for SNHU as he scored 17 points and had eight rebounds, including going 5-for-6 from the 3-point line and Bonsignore added 16 points in the loss.
It appeared early on that the Mocs might in a long evening as the Penmen, who won the East Region Championship and were making its first Elite Eight appearance in 20 years, scored the game’s first five points and led 10-6 when the Mocs used an 11-4 run capped by a Volovic trey to take a 17-14 lead just seven minutes into the contest.
The Mocs held a 19-16 lead at the second first half media timeout, until SNHU used a 13-0 run keyed by four consecutive treys to push out to a 29-19 lead with 8:52 remaining in the opening half.
“We talked before the game that it is a 40 minute game. There wasn’t panic because it’s a long game,” said Darner, who is the two-time NABC South Region Coach of the Year and was named this year’s Division II Coach of the Year by Basketball Times. “Whether we get up seven or eight or we get down seven or eight to start the game, don’t panic and I didn’t think we did that.”
The Mocs, though, would respond with a 19-5 run over the final 11 minutes of the half to go into halftime with a 38-37 lead. The run was keyed by eight points from Capers and capped by a Johnson lay-up.
In the first half, FSC shot 46 percent from the field and 25 percent from the 3-point line, but was outrebounded, 19-8, but stayed in the game thanks to hitting 11-of-13 free throws and forcing 17 turnovers.
For the game, the Mocs were outrebounded, 37-29, but outshot the Penmen, 49 percent to 45 percent from the field. FSC shot just 24 percent from the 3-point line (5-for-21), but hit 76 percent (16-for-21) from the free throw line. SNHU shot 42 percent from the 3-point line (11-of-26).
The Mocs committed 11 turnovers, but just four over the final 25 minutes of the game and collected 15 steals for the game.
“I thought we were able get together as a team midway through the first half and began to play our best basketball,” said Capers, who went 5-for-7 at the foul line in Wednesday’s game to pass John Ebeling for most career free throws made with 744. Ebeling made 740 free throws in his career from 1979-82.