The Bentley University Falcons played strong defense Tuesday in the opening round of the 2022 NCAA Division II Men's Basketball Elite Eight at the Ford Center.
Northwest Missouri State, the two-time defending national champions played even better D and as a result, it's the Bearcats who moved on to the national semifinals against Black Hills State, which stunned undefeated and top-ranked Nova Southeastern in the second quarterfinal.
The 61-43 Northwest victory was the Bearcats' 15th straight in NCAA tournament play and ended a standout season for the 25-5 Falcons, the Northeast-10 Conference, and East Region champions.
"It was a tough game," said longtime Bentley head coach Jay Lawson. "Northeast Division II basketball is very different than in other parts of the country and they have a couple of players that we don't see very often in the northeast."
Bentley never got untracked, missing its first six shots and not scoring for the first 5:15, but hung with Northwest into the second half. When graduate guard Jordan Mello-Klein (Sharon, Mass./Thayer Academy) drained a three-ball with 13:05 remaining, the Falcons were down just seven, 37-30.
Bentley turned the ball over on its next two possessions, two of an uncharacteristic 19 Falcon turnovers, and Northwest went off on a 14-1 run to make it a 51-31 game with 9:18 to play. Included during that stretch were five points from All-America junior guard Trevor Hudgins (Manhattan, Kans.), a straightaway three-pointer, and two free throws.
"We spent the whole week focused on our defense," said Bearcat guard Diego Bernard (St. Joseph, Mo.), who finished with a 12-point, 13-rebound double-double and five steals.
The two teams essentially traded baskets the rest of the way with the difference ranging staying between 16 and 18 pointers over the final 7:15. Hudgins scored six points during that time, pushing his game-high point total to 24, and graduate guard Colton Lawrence (Myerstown, Pa./ELCO HS) netted seven of the Falcons' last nine points.
The Bearcats limited Bentley to 30.2 percent shooting, including .259 in the first half, and forced the 19 turnovers, which they turned into a 21-2 domination in points off. Five of the Falcon turnovers came via offensive fouls, including three during 82 seconds when Northwest Missouri was opening the game up.
Bentley limited the Bearcats to 39 percent shooting in the first half and their fourth-lowest point total of the season. Northwest picked up the offense in the second half, connecting at a 55 percent clip after the break.
Rebounds were one area in which Bentley had the advantage as they held Northwest to no offensive rebounds and finished with a 39-30 advantage. That included 26-16 in a first half that ended with the Falcons on the short end of a 26-19 score.
"We've been a very mature rebounding team on both backboards all year," said Lawson. "It played out today. We outrebounded them and they didn't have any offensive rebounds. It just didn't pay dividends."
Bentley's leader on the boards was sophomore Zach Laput (Beacon Falls, Conn./Notre Dame HS) with eight. Senior guard Mason Webb (Oklahoma City, Okla./Bishop McGuinness HS) and graduate forward Pete Blust (Hinsdale, Ill./Hinsdale HS) followed with seven apiece.
Hudgins, whose resume includes nearly 2800 points, needed 20 shots, including 13 attempts from deep, to score his 24 points. Also in doubles for Northwest. Joining him in doubles were Bernard and sophomore forward Luke Waters (Olathe, Kans.) with 11.
Lawrence and Mello-Klein were Bentley's top scorers, with 12 and 10 respectively. Defensively, senior guard Brian Wright-Kinsey (Brooklyn, N.Y./Brooks School) had two blocks and two steals, and Blust had two steals and his 57th rejection of the season.
"Great respect to them. They stayed focused to the end. It's not just a talented team, it's a very motivated, driven, and well-coached team," praised Lawson.
In regards to his team, Lawson saluted the Falcons. "I've been here 37 years and we've had some terrific teams, we've had more talented teams, we've had teams whose only loss came in the Elite Eight, and none of them are a symbol of our program more than this team. We're proud of them. We ran into a buzzsaw today and that happens. I think that team has a very good shot at repeating this year, we'll see what happens."
Mello-Klein, following his final career game, praised his teammates. "It's a great group of kids. You don't get to this point if not cohesive. 16 guys on this team, I've never been closer with a group of guys. The whole team has been great.
"Playing for Coach has been unbelievable. I don't think there is a person who takes his job as seriously and does it as well as Coach, to be honest with us. He has taught us to be respectable young men, humble leaders, and trustworthy friends. And I think he cares about how those lessons he teaches us on the court extend to our lives off the court. I think every player who has played for him with attest to that. It's been special to play for him, it's been special to play alongside my brothers here, and to end it like this, we've exceeded a lot this season," concluded the Falcon floor leader.