Drury coach Steve Hesser was asked in the post-game media conference about what was running through his mind when each of his Panthers climbed the ladder and cut down the nets after a 67-61 victory over Bellarmine Tuesday night for the NCAA-II Midwest Regional title.
"Proud," Hesser said, choking back tears. "Very proud."
And he surely was not alone, as a raucous and appreciative crowd of 2,676 at the O'Reilly Family Event Center no doubt shared that sentiment after the Panthers won their 20th consecutive game - tying a school record - and most importantly, earned their first-ever trip to the NCAA-II Elite Eight.
The nationally seventh-ranked Panthers (28-4) will now travel to Louisville, Ky., to take on South Carolina-Aiken at historic Freedom Hall in the national quarterfinals next Thursday, March 28 in an 8 p.m. (EST) tipoff.
SC-Aiken (25-7), the top seed and 20th-ranked team in the nation, defeated No. 3 seed Barton 82-75 Thursday night to win the East Regional title and advance, like DU, to the Elite Eight for the first time.
Senior point guard Brandon Lockhart, named the tourney's Most Outstanding Player, scored 21 points, added eight assists and five steals and played all 40 minutes to guide the Panthers to the victory on a night when - for the first time in a while - not a whole lot went right for the majority of the game.
Drury shot just 40 percent from the field (22 of 55), their second-worst FG effort of the season and by far their worst at The O', where they've now won 22 of their last 23 games. Senior guard Alex Hall had his toughest shooting night at home of the season, making just 5 of 16 attempts (and 3 of 9 from 3-point range) in a 15-point effort.
As a team, the Panthers - league leaders in 3-point FG percentage during the regular season - made just 6 of 19 from behind the arc, and in the arena where it seems they typically fall at the most opportune times.
But boy, did the Panthers rise to the occasion when it mattered most.
Drury built a nine-point lead (46-37) with 10:45 to go on a layup by Lockhart, but the Knights countered with a 13-0
run that stunned the Panthers and the capacity crowd at The O' to grab a 50-46 advantage - their first lead of the game - with just 6:47 to play.
But Hall swished home a trey, and then on a bizarre possession, missed a breakaway dunk attempt, but Lockhart was there to grab the rebound and eventually worked the ball back into the corner for another Hall made 3-pointer. Panthers back on top, 52-50.
Drury never trailed again.
"Heck of a game," Hesser said. "I'm sure for the fans, it was very exciting. Bellarmine is good, they're well-coached, and they mess with you on the defensive end with their changes. We missed some stuff that we ordinarily would make ... but I thought in the second half we had some senior guys step up and make some plays on the defensive end. Alex couldn't throw it in the ocean from the bank, but he finally got his feet in the water where he could make a couple of big ones."
Still, the Panthers missed some free throws in the final minute to make it interesting. After Hall missed the front end of a one-and-one, Bellarmine's Chris Dowe scored a layup with 22 seconds left to cut the deficit to two (61-59).
But Hall bounced back to hit two free throws at the 21-second mark to push it back to four, and after Dowe turned it over, a monster dunk by Cameron Adams off a feed from Hall with 10 seconds left sealed the deal.
And, just for good measure, Hall followed two Dowe free throws with a slam of his own with a second to go for the final six-point margin and to send the large crowd home happy.
"Coach emphasizes all the time that we've got to get stops," Hall said. "And we really buckled down there toward the end, bent our knees and guarded. And that was the deciding factor of the game."
Drury finished 16-1 at The O' this season and is now 42-5 in the three years since the nation's top D-II facility opened its doors. A lasting memory for all - seeing DU's student fan group, the "Fanthers," storming the court to celebrate with the Panthers, a student section filled to the brim despite the school being on Spring Break this week. The DU players showed their love for their peers when they instantly invited them back to center-court to share the NCAA regional trophy.
A few minutes later, the crowd cheered each Panther as they climbed the ladder to cut down their piece of championship net.
"It's been our goal all year to cut down the nets," Lockhart said. "And hopefully, this isn't the last one we cut down."
"Being a local kid (from Kickapoo HS), it just means a lot to me for us to go out like this, and for my family and friends to be able to experience this with us," said Hall, who pushed his career total to 2,111 points (third all-time at DU) and with three more treys, moved his career DU record total to 373.
"I'm just so proud of our community, and the students ... it was a tremendous environment to play a regional final in, and really proud of our team ... especially our seniors," said Hesser, who took particular joy in seeing Lockhart step up to the roar of the crowd and receive the Most Outstanding Player trophy in post-game ceremonies.
For the three games of the Midwest Regional, Lockhart averaged 17.3 points, 7.7 assists, 4.0 rebounds and 3.0 steals.
"I've called Brandon 'Chief' for a couple of years because he's the head of our tribe, he's the one who makes us go," Hesser said. "I felt really happy for him, because I felt in our conference, other people didn't appreciate him like I do and like his teammates do.
"Brandon Lockhart would be happy if he didn't take one shot as long as we won. He's all about winning."
Adams finished with 12 points and a team-high eight rebounds for the Panthers, who beat the Knights (24-8) on the boards 36-27.
Dowe finished with 20 points to lead the Knights and joined Lockhart, Hall, BU's Vance Hall and Michigan Tech's Ali Haidar on the all-tourney team.
Lockhart's eight assists pushed his career total to 519, moving him past former DU great Nate Quinn (514 from 1976-80) and into fourth place on the all-time Drury list. He also now has 1,193 career points, surpassing Frank Bennett (1,178) for 25th place on the Drury scoring charts. Current DU assistant coach Steven Gum is No. 24 (1,205).
Drury's 20th consecutive victory tied the 1977-78 Panthers for the most in the program's history at any level, and pulled them out of a tie with the 1978-79 national champions, who had a 19-game winning streak.
And for Hesser, this one carried a little more personal satisfaction as well, as he watched his assistant coaches climb the ladder and slice off a piece of championship net before he finished up the ceremony with one of his own.
It was just over a month ago when the tough-as-nails, ninth-year DU boss had to spend a weekend in a Quincy, Ill. hospital - against his will, of course - while battling pneumonia. He missed the Panthers' game at Illinois-Springfield while hospitalized, and a couple of days of practice after that weekend as assistants Ja Havens and Gum and graduate assistant coach Brandon Kimbrough ran the ship in his absence.
And while Hesser has continued his slower-than-he'd-like recovery from the illness the past few weeks.
"I don't know if you've seen the movie 'Weekend at Bernies,' but that's kind of what I've been like," Hesser quipped. "I've got to give a lot of credit to my assistant coaches. The ultimate compliment a coach can get, is I came in here on a Wednesday after I'd been released (from the hospital), and I stayed for 40 minutes of practice, because I was really sick. They did everything I would want to them to do, and at the right time.
"I've got a guy who's been with me for eight years (Havens) who's ready to be a head coach, and I've got two former players - one of them played with me for seven years and he's been with me for nine years (Kimbrough), so he's like a son to me, and the other one was on our last conference championship team, and it's his first year back with us and we're going to the Elite Eight, so I'm thinking about taking him to Downstream with me in about 30 minutes."
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