With Bellarmine, it’s not the pregame speech that’s fiery. It’s the postgame that gets you. The locker room was calm before Tuesday’s ASUN Tournament championship game against Jacksonville in Freedom Hall. Coach Scott Davenport just repeats the team goals. “We win the war rebounding, we win the game,” he tells them.
“Attack with great purpose,” he tells them. “And that purpose is your teammate. That’s all the purpose you need.”
Father Dale Cieslik gets up, and the team gathers around for his pregame prayer. “Bring the heat, Father!” somebody says before the prayer. And he begins: “The ASUN shines bright on my old Kentucky home … court.”
Bellarmine 77, Jacksonville 72. The Knights reign as ASUN Tournament champions. Amen.
While the rest of the nation is talking about what an injustice it is that Bellarmine can’t go to the NCAA Tournament — because of NCAA rules — in the locker room, the victory is a blessing.
If Davenport had drawn up how the Bellarmine men’s basketball program’s first two seasons would have gone, it wouldn’t have looked a whole lot different from what transpired in Freedom Hall Tuesday night in front of a crowd of 6,251. A Division I conference championship. A court storming. An ESPN2 audience. Pandemonium.
Bellarmine got to display a great many things that are good about the program on Tuesday. The dogged effort. The meticulous preparation. The ball movement — though not as much as usual. The resilience. The coaching. Yes, Davenport has won championships of some kind at every level he has coached. He won a state championship coaching Allan Houston at Ballard. He won a Division II national championship at Bellarmine. And now he has won a Division I conference title in just the program’s second year at the D-1 level — and the first year was shortened by a pandemic.
“Epic,” was the word Father Dale put on the whiteboard wall after the game. Epic may not be a big enough word.
If the pregame locker room was placid, the emotions poured out in the postgame. The program’s seniors got up to speak. Each of the coaches spoke. Davenport spoke to the team. His Kentucky Athletics’ Hall of Fame plaque hangs in the corridor above the playing court at Freedom Hall.
But the scene in that locker room, he said, was one of the most moving scenes in his life. Davenport grew up just miles from this building. Won a state championship here. Coached here with Denny Crum, and then Rick Pitino. And now it is Bellarmine’s home court. And on Tuesday, it was properly christened.
“The people that coached me. The people that raised me. The people that taught me. What are they thinking now?” Davenport said when asked to reflect on his road. “You know, my mom, my dad. My dad never saw me do one thing. Just wonder what he would think. I was 9 (when he died). Coaches, teachers, principals. They shaped my life. I am what I am because so many others gave so much to me. And I try to give back. I don’t know if I can ever give enough but I try … There’s so many coaches, so many teachers. It’s hard to talk about, really. But I’m so thankful, every day.”
The tears flowed in the locker room, in the postgame hugs, on the court and in the stands.
I saw Davenport before the game and he said, “You just want it so bad for them. Gosh, you want it so bad.”
His team delivered. It came out making threes. It executed its game plan. It weathered foul trouble. It played a little more isolation than it likes to, but you do what you have to do to win the game. It made big free throws down the stretch. CJ Fleming made a circus 3-pointer.
“That’s how it was supposed to look,” he joked. He also went 11-for-11 from the free-throw line. That’s how that is supposed to look.
“We were talking in the locker room,” Fleming said. “And Dylan (Penn) said, we don’t actually realize what we just did, being able to win the ASUN Conference tournament championship in our second year in Division I … I think it’s kind of hard when you’re in the moment to kind of take a step back like that. And the floor being rushed, I looked back at the bench and saw them come in, I turned around and we were just getting swarmed. So it was just such an awesome feeling. I think, maybe a little bit down the road, we’ll be able to look back and be like, ‘Wow, we did that in Freedom Hall, we were able to get a conference championship and do it do it together with our brothers.’ So it’s just such an awesome feeling.”
This was Bellarmine’s shining moment. They’ll be talking about how the Knights should get to go to the NCAA Tournament but won’t. They’ll get more national attention than the university has ever had.
They announced the score at the 6th region championship at Valley. The crowd went wild. There were 70 former Bellarmine players in the crowd on Tuesday. They were going wild.
“This is what we hoped for when we went Division I,” Davenport said. “I don’t know if anyone thought we would be here this fast. But these players brought us here. Luckiest coach alive.”