Michael Arias Mora
The Florida Southern College men’s basketball team added another milestone to their season on March 8 by winning the Sunshine State Conference (SSC) tournament championship.
For the Mocs, this is the 25th SSC tournament win, which adds to the storied tradition of the program. The Mocs now have two trophies to celebrate so far this season, as last month they won the SSC regular season championship. It’s the first time since the program’s national championship winning season in 2015 that the Mocs have accomplished these feats.
The 2020 SSC tournament took place over spring break and saw eight out of eleven teams compete for one trophy. As the regular season champs, the Mocs were the No. 1 seed and earned the right to host all of the conference games in Jenkins Field House.
Their first opponent in the quarterfinals were the Fighting Knights of Lynn University. Lynn (12-15, 8-12) entered the tournament as the No. 8 seed and was looking to get its first win over FSC this season after losing both meetings in the regular season.
The Knights did not play like the No. 8 seed, however, as they jumped out to a double-digit lead on the Mocs towards the end of the first half, after a back and forth start to the game.
At the end of the first half, the Mocs found themselves down 51-35. Yet in the second half, the Mocs roared back and cut the lead to single digits within the first few minutes and took the lead at its halfway point.
The team continued to trade baskets with Lynn until the six minute mark, when a massive FSC run put the Mocs up double digits. The Mocs won by a final score of 97-80 with Jalyn Hinton and Brett Hanson as the stars of the game with 33 and 31 points respectively.
In the semifinals, the Mocs took on the No. 5 seed Embry-Riddle. Embry-Riddle (20-10, 11-9), fresh off a road win in their quarterfinal matchup, was looking to defeat the Mocs for the second time this season, having won the first meeting against FSC back in November.
This game played out very similarly to the Lynn game for the Mocs, as once again the team found itself down double digits in the first half. Embry-Riddle used a barrage of three pointers and dominated the inside to build up a 38-26 lead on the Mocs with 3:25 left to play.
The Mocs fought back briefly but ended up down double digits at the half once again with the Eagles up 42-32. The Mocs used a 7-0 run early in the half to cut the lead in half to 46-41. FSC finally regained the lead 62-61 with just under eight minutes to go, and the game was back and forth the rest of the way.
With under a minute left, Jack Rauch found Hanson for a lay up to make the final score 80-77, as Embry-Riddle missed a three pointer at the buzzer.
The SSC championship game had the Mocs facing arguably their greatest rival Nova Southeastern. The Sharks (23-6, 15-5) were the only team to defeat the Mocs at home so far this season as they won 111-103 back on Jan. 4.
The game initially began with the Sharks scoring the first six points of the game and jumping out to an 8-3 lead. However, unlike the previous game against the Sharks, the Mocs responded quickly and tied the game up before taking the lead on a Hanson to Hinton alley-oop.
The teams continued to trade baskets as the first half continued with the Mocs keeping the lead under control the entire way. The Mocs had a 54-43 lead over the Sharks at halftime, with Rauch as the star of the first half scoring 20 points. Rodgers was second in scoring at 15.
The second half started slow, but eventually saw the Mocs turn things up again as they increased the lead to 15 points at 68-53 around four minutes into the half. The Sharks continued to stay in it as they eventually cut the lead back to nine points.
The game then had a stretch where the lead fluctuated between nine and 12 points. The Sharks made another late run, but the Mocs continued to stay poised and eventually brought the lead back up to ten with 4:31 left on the clock. The closest the Sharks would get would be six points as free throws down the stretch gave the Mocs the SSC title 118-109.
The Mocs had five players score in double-figures to Nova’s three. Rauch lead the Mocs with a career-high 31 points, while Hanson and Rodgers scored 26 and 21 points respectively. Hinton and Brandon Carroll also scored double digits, reaching 14 and 16 points respectively.
“It feels great to win the SSC title,” Rauch said. “This one was more special than last year’s because we got to do it at home in front of all of our fans.”
Mark Matthews scored 42 points for Nova Southeastern to lead them in scoring making this his second 40-point game of the year.
Head Coach Mike Donnelly explained that winning the conference championship at home was uniquely important because of the fan support that the team has received throughout the season.
“[The conference championship] was everything for us,” Donnelly said. “It’s incredible, this program is [like] none other. In our league, to win our 25th Sunshine State Conference Championship, [I’m] just incredibly proud of our guys,”
Hanson echoed similar sentiments as his head coach, calling the SSC championship a “great feeling.”
“This was one of the goals we set at the beginning of the year,” Hanson said. “It feels great to have accomplished it.”
Awards and Honors
After the game, the All-Tournament team was announced. Five out of the six recipients were present for the ceremony, as they were either players from Nova Southeastern or Florida Southern.
The Sharks had two players named to the team with Matthews and Nick Smith earning the honors, and the Mocs had three with Rauch, Hinton and Hanson. The other recipient was Darhius Nunn of Palm Beach Atlantic. Hanson, in addition, was also named Most Valuable Player of the tournament for his performance in all three games.
The MVP trophy was not the only award Hanson won this week. Right before the tournament, Hanson was also named Sunshine State Conference Player of the Year for the 2019-20 season. The senior averaged 22.4 points, 6.9 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 2.0 steals through the 31 games this season.
He was not the only Doc recognized, however, as Hinton was named Defensive Player of the Year for his efforts this season. Hinton is leading the nation in blocks averaging 3.4 a game and leading the SSC in rebounds during the regular season at 8.9 a game.
Hanson and Hinton were named to the first and second teams respectively for the conference. Coach Donnelly was also recognized as Coach of the Year after helping FSC to a 26-2 record during the regular season.
The Mocs have improved their win total every year under Coach Donnelly since he arrived in 2016, and his coaching has helped the Mocs gain national attention as they are ranked No. 5 overall.
The new additions to the team this year have also been a huge boost for the Mocs this season.
“These guys were coming into a tough spot because we had success last year,” Donnelly said. “But our transfers and our new guys, our freshmen, came in and played a huge role for us.”
Donnelly explains that he’s been most impressed with the leadership that the returning players showed by embracing the new additions early on in the season.
“[The returners] knew that we needed [the new guys] to play a big role, and luckily it’s all worked out. These guys have developed great chemistry both on and off the court,” Donnelly said.
Hinton, one of the aforementioned new additions, had known about the team’s success from last season coming into the program and feels honored to be a part of this year’s conference championship.
“It feels great to be able to join a program and have immediate success,” Hinton said. “Preparing for the [NCAA] tournament is serious business because it’s win or go home. We just have to do the same thing we’ve been doing all year by locking in everyday practice and not cheating the process.”
The Mocs now stand 29-2 overall, with a regular season and conference tournament championship to show for their efforts thus far. They will now begin preparation for the NCAA D-II tournament where they are the No. 1 seed in the South Region.
The Mocs will host all three rounds of the region starting on March 14 and ending with the Sweet Sixteen and regional title game on March 17. The winner of the regional championship game will then head to Evansville, Indiana for the Elite Eight.
“We are focused on taking the NCAA Tournament one game at a time because that’s all we are guaranteed,” Rauch said. “If we do that we have a really good shot at winning the South Region Tournament and making a run at the National Championship this year.”
With the season now in a single elimination format, Donnelly explained that the team’s tough battles in the first two rounds of the tournament will help the team going forward.
“We played a little tight [and with] a little pressure [against Lynn and Embry-Riddle] but after tonight’s win, I think the guys are feeling great,” Donnelly said. “We’re hosting the regional so we have an opportunity to get a bigger title and a bigger trophy. Hopefully the guys will stay hungry, I think they will, [and] we’ll enjoy this, but we have more to get next weekend.”
During the D-II selection show Sunday night, it was revealed that the Mocs will play the Miles College Golden Bears, the winners of the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, in round one of the tournament on March 14.