EVANSVILLE, Ind. — One day before the biggest game of his college career, Kevin Capers of Florida Southern was sitting in an urgent care facility 900 miles from home with an IV attached to him.
He had gotten so severely ill in his hotel room that he had to be moved out. Then he vomited in the midst of a hotel lobby while the team was waiting for a photo shoot.
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“It was horrible,” Capers said.
In the DII men‘s basketball championship game Saturday, Capers spent more time of the first half on the bench with a towel draped over his head, trying not to get sick, than he did on the court. And somehow he hit his first six shots, five of them 3-pointers.
By the end of the day, Capers was dancing around — although still slowly — with a net around his neck after Florida Southern won its first national title in men’s basketball in more than 30 years with a 77-62 win against Indiana (Pa.). Capers scored a game-high 24 points and was named the tournament’s most outstanding player.
That’s sick. Literally.
“His performance today, it was unbelievable for him to do what he did,” said Florida Southern coach Linc Darner, a former team captain at Purdue, after winning his first national championship.
The team’s pregame prayer, according to Florida Southern senior guard Tyler Kelly, focused on asking for divine help for Capers to get through the biggest of games for any of the six seniors on the team.
“I actually didn’t want to play today,“ Caper said. “Coach kept checking on me, ‘You good? You good?’ “
Not normally a player who relies on 3-point shooting, Capers took three of them in the first half and made them all. Not one of them even hit the rim. And then he headed for the sanctity of the bench. He played just eight minutes in the first half.
“Once I was in the game, I could play through it,” Capers said. “Sitting on that bench, my stomach just kept hurting, hurting.”
At one point, Darner walked by him, patted him on the head and asked him if he was OK.
Capers managed a smile and a nod of his head.
On a day when the Moccasins won their first national title since 1981, when the school president and busloads of students made the 14-hour trip north for their shining moment, this is what they’ll remember from the national championship game of 2015. In four years, Capers scored 2,319 points — among the top-five active scorers in all NCAA divisions. He was tournament MVP at the conference, regional and national levels. At the Elite Eight, he scored 69 points.
But a stomach virus in Evansville? That’s what they’ll talk about.
“It’s amazing,” Darner said. “Sometimes guys play their best when they’re sick because maybe they concentrate a little bit more.”
After working toward this national stage all season long, losing just once in 37 games with an all-senior starting lineup and going through grueling workouts they hadn’t gone through in other years, it had come down to this: Moving senior forward Stephen Battle out of Capers’ hotel room and making sure everyone else kept at a distance, also.
— Tyler Kelly
Their star player was in medical isolation. Capers was under the constant eye of team trainer Al Green and his wife, Sue Stanley-Green, an associate professor of athletic training and department director at Florida Southern.
“That was my biggest worry,” Darner said, “somebody else.
“We didn’t want it to spread. That was our biggest concern, that it would go to somebody else. Once we got up this morning and nobody else was sick, if they got sick later it’d be OK because the game will be over by the time they get sick.”
No sicknesses were detected on the court at Ford Center late Saturday afternoon. Only celebrations. Blue and white confetti shot into the air. Parents went on the court to take photos of their triumphant sons.
In addition to Capers’ 24 points on 8-for-13 shooting, senior teammates Bubby Johnson and Battle each reached double figures in scoring. Johnson had a team-high eight rebounds. Battle had a team-high four assists. Junior guard Dylan Travis scored 15 of his 18 points in the second half.
“We’ve been talking about this all year, actually all four years, we said we wanted to get coach Darner a ring,” Kelly said. “We don’t get one for a conference championship. We won, but we don’t get a ring for those. We just talked about it all year. I thank God that I’ve been extremely blessed to play with one of my best friends in Kevin Capers and to be able to play with these guys. We really are a family.”
Darner fought off a choked-up voice as he sat beside his senior starters and talked about them in the postgame press conference. In four years, they won 109 games.
“What an unbelievable feeling this is,“ Darner said. “These five seniors, they deserved it for all the hard work they’ve put in on their own since losing in the first round last year to today. I’m so proud of them. The sad thing is I don’t get to coach them anymore.”