EVANSVILLE, Ind — Tie game. Less than a minute left. National semifinal. A berth in the national championship game on the line.
So, with 35 seconds left in the DII Elite Eight Men’s Basketball Championship semifinal against Bellarmine on Thursday night, Florida Southern head coach Linc Darner approached his players and asked them what they wanted to do.
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“He was kind of like, what should we run?” senior guard Kevin Capers said. “I was like, ‘Coach, please, let‘s just run this play. … I can run this play.’
“He said, ‘OK.’ ”
A few seconds later, Capers hit a 3-point shot that gave top-ranked Florida Southern a 79-76 win and put the Moccasins in Saturday’s national title game against Indiana (Pa.).
Welcome to the world of Florida Southern basketball, where the team is run by a coach — who used to play at Purdue — that lets his team call plays on the bench during timeouts as well as on the court while play is going on.
“Kevin and TK [senior guard Tyler Kelly] told me the other day they’re really coaching the team,” Darner said, chuckling. “I’m just kind of a figure on the sidelines.”
The five seniors who start every game for the Moccasins aren’t just talented players on the court, but they are coaches on the court. The trust runs deep. The special relationship between Darner, the son of a high school coach, and his players have carried the Mocs through a 24-game win streak and within one win of the team’s first national title since 1981.
“He’s a players’ coach,” Capers said. “He teaches us. If we see something he doesn’t see — because he can’t see everything. We’ll tell him, ‘Mismatch this, mismatch there.’ He just listens to us.”
It has made this season even more enjoyable for Darner.
“I have a lot of trust in our seniors,” Darner said. “When they come to the timeout and say, ‘Coach, can we try this? Can we do this? Can we trap ball screen now?’ I listen to them because they’ve been around and they want to win and they want to do things the right way.”
Each timeout often turns into a think tank. Even Thursday night, when with 35 seconds left in a tie game, Darner asked the Mocs if they wanted to hold the ball for a last shot or try to score right away.
“They said, ‘Run the clock down,’ ” Darner said later.
And then they called the play to be run for Capers’ jump shot on the perimeter.
In addition to Capers, whose 2,250 career points entering the Elite Eight ranked No. 2 among DII active players, and Kelly, Florida Southern’s senior group includes starters Tyler Logan, Bubby Johnson and Stephen Battle. Daniel Turner, another senior, comes off the bench.
“It’s been a great group to work with,” Darner said. “They come to practice every day, work extremely hard. There haven’t been a lot of days that I’ve had to get upset with them about competing and working hard. It’s a very competitive group. Anything they do, they don’t want to lose.”
Capers and Kelly are the ones who most frequently turn into those coaches on the floor.
“I do give Kevin and TK a lot of freedom and making calls during the game, especially on the defensive end,” Darner said. “They call all of our out-of-bounds plays and things like that. … You have two guys who know what I want, and I have a lot of trust in them to understand what we want to get done. They’ve done a great job in doing things.’
Kelly, who wants to be a coach once he graduates and already has applied for a job with Darner for the 2015-16 season, is appreciative of the coach he is playing for.
“I think that helped me want to get into coaching. The freedom he gives us,” Kelly said. “Sometimes if I see something, I make a call. If Kevin [Capers] sees something, he makes a call, defensively and offensively. We have a good relationship. We walk in his office all the time, mess around with him all the time. I think that’s what makes the place so good. We‘re all relaxed all the time.”
Not that every moment is perfect. Capers doesn‘t just wind up his players, turn on a switch and sit down for the game. He is up and down the sidelines in front of the bench all 40 minutes. And when the Mocs fell behind Southern New Hampshire by 10 points in the first half of Wednesday‘s quarterfinal-round game, Darner called timeout mostly to yell at his players because of how the game was going.
Even that was a teaching point.
“I’ve learned a ton,” Kelly said. “I know if I coach a team, I’ll probably coach them the same way. Run the same offense. Press the same way.”
‘He’s a great coach,” Capers said. “I know teams, sometimes you have to make 15 passes. Coach Darner’s not like that. If you have a good shot, you take it. If you miss it, he’s going to be mad. He lets you get a little bit more freedom. That’s why he’s [Sunshine State Conference] coach of the year.”