By Stephen Waldman
EVANSVILLE, IND. – The top-seeded Florida Southern College Moccasins took the lead over the Southern New Hampshire Penmen in the final minute of the first half and never gave it back and advanced to the Final Four with an 81-70 victory at the Ford Center.
The No. 1 Mocs advance to the Final Four where they will face No. 3 Bellarmine (31-3) tonight for a 9:30 p.m. EST tipoff.
Per usual, senior guard Kevin Capers (Winter Haven, Fla.) led the way offensively for the Mocs for the 21st time this season. Capers, who was named an NABC All-American for the second consecutive year on Monday, scored an efficient 28 points on 11-19 shooting from the field and 5-7 from the charity stripe. Capers also recorded game highs in steals, with six, and assists, with five.
Both teams played with differing styles, the likes of which their opponents have not faced so far this season. FSC plays with a very high tempo and capitalizes on forced turnovers and free throws while SNHU plays a more structured offense and seemed to find the open player on every possession.
“I thought we played a very good team in Southern New Hampshire tonight,” said FSC’s head coach Linc Darner. “They came out at the start of the game and hit just about everything they shot and got every rebound.”
“I don’t know how a lot of teams play in (the Northeast-10), but we didn’t see anybody that pressed the way we can press, and I thought we got after them.”
The Penmen (24-8) were able to jump out to an early 5-0 lead, but the Mocs (34-1) answered with a 6-0 run that was capped with a jumper by junior Dominique Williams (Haines City, Fla.). Senior forward Stephen Battle (Waldorf, Md.) scored the first two buckets of the game for FSC.
“I thought they came out and really took it to us at the start of the game,” said Darner. “When we got our pressure and we started scoring on them we were able to create turnovers, which is our biggest key. At the end of the day, we look at turnovers. We had 11; they had 24. That’s 13 more possessions for us, which is always a big key.”
Another big key for the Mocs was the fact that they were able to get NSHU’s leading scorer, Rodney Sanders, into three first-half fouls, making him watch the majority of the game from the bench. Sanders, who averaged 17.5 points and more than 34 minutes per game throughout the season, was limited to just five points in 19 minutes. He scored all five of his points in the first half in 12 minutes of action.
Picking up the slack for SNHU was BJ Cardarelli, who was a perfect 4-4 from behind the arc in the first half, and ended the game with a team-high 17 points on 5-8 shooting. Cardarelli also pulled down a game-high eight rebounds.
From that point on, the first half looked more like a heavyweight championship boxing match more than a basketball game with the two sides trading blows. Neither team had more than a four point lead until the 9:35 mark in the first half when SNHU was in the midst of a 13-0 run. The beginning of that run would be the beginning of a stretch of 11 minutes and seven seconds where the Penmen did not relinquish the lead.
To end the first half, the Mocs were able to chip away at their 10-point deficit, and, with 22 ticks left on the clock, a layup by senior forward Bubby Johnson (Waldorf, Md.) gave FSC the final bucket of the half. A steal by junior guard Dylan Travis (Omaha, Neb.) in the waning seconds helped preserve the one-point lead going into the lockerroom.
“Once we got a few turnovers and a couple easy baskets, I think we relaxed a little bit and started playing the way we are capable of,” said Darner.
Coming out of halftime, the Mocs were able to go on an 8-2 run holding SNHU without a field goal for nearly eight minutes. The game returned to a dog fight like it was in the middle of the first half, and was even tied at the 9:38 mark at 54. That would be the closest thing the Penmen would come to having a lead in the second half, however. FSC would go on a 26-9 run over an eight-minute span, as SNHU just could not keep up with the Mocs anymore. With two key players in Sanders and Aleksandar Dobrovic fouled out of the game, the Penmen started forcing shots that were no longer falling like they were to start the game.
In the semifinal matchup, the Mocs will face No. 3 Bellarmine (31-3) for the second time this season. The first meeting was a 101-96 overtime victory for FSC back in December. This is FSC’s seventh time in program history reaching the Final Four, and the first time since 1999.