By Duane Cochran
Times West Virginian
Veteran Bellarmine (Ky.) University coach Scott Davenport looked a bit like he’d been through a war Thursday evening after his No. 2-ranked Knights squared off with Fairmont State at the Joe Retton Arena.
That’s because he had.
FSU took unbeaten Bellarmine to the wire here last night before falling, 81-73.
“It was like a postseason game here tonight,” said Davenport, who saw his team improve to 8-0. “I mean we played as hard as we could play. They played as hard as they could play. It was like a postseason game.
“They have a couple of significant injuries on their team, and we were hampered by foul trouble literally the whole night. I’ll tell you this, though. This game is the type of game which is going to make your team better because you just can’t simulate what went on out there tonight in practice.”
What went on was an entertaining and fierce battle between a pair of NCAA Division II heavyweights. Early in the second half it looked as if the veteran Knights were going to pull away from the youthful Falcons and coast to the win.
Bellarmine, which won the 2011 national championship, quickly extended its eight-point halftime lead to 12, but instead of folding, the Falcons fought back and gave the Knights pretty much all they wanted.
A smothering, active FSU press forced Bellarmine to commit 22 turnovers, including nine in the first 11 minutes of the final half which helped the Falcons erase the double-digit deficit and build a 62-58 lead of their own.
“I thought we competed for the most part,” said a disappointed FSU coach Jerrod Calhoun, who saw his squad fall to 7-3 with the loss. “I think we played for about 33 or 34 minutes. You can’t take plays off against Bellarmine and expect to win. They’re a veteran team, which knows how to play and plays smart. They don’t take plays off. Every time we took a play off it resulted in two points for them.
“Our kids’ effort was there. Obviously having two starters out (Brendan Cooper and Ke’Chaun Lewis, who are both sidelined with injuries) hurt, but I told the guys afterward we’re in a big hole now. We’re 7-3, and that’s the reality of the situation. If we have any hopes of making it to the postseason we have to find a way to win some games.”
Led by Thomas Wimbush, who finished with a team-high 25 points and eight rebounds; Stevie Browning, who added 16 points, five boards and four steals; and Shammgod Wells, who chipped in 13 points and three steals, Fairmont erased a 49-37 Bellarmine lead with a 25-9 run to open a 62-58 advantage with 8:32 left to play.
“Coach put it on us with that press,” said Wimbush. “He wanted me on the ball because I’m active. We knew we had to get key stops and force them to turn over the ball to get back in it. Once we got a few stops that got us going, and we converted on the offensive side.”
Down the stretch, however, Bellarmine regrouped, took better care of the basketball and forced the Falcons to work harder to get baskets when they were on offense.
“Their press did give us some trouble,” said Davenport. “It’s tough for us to simulate that in practice. Give them credit; they did a great job with it. Some of that also falls on us because we didn’t handle it well. Trust me we’ll be better in the future because of that.
“I thought the key to the game is that in the last 10 minutes we limited their opportunities and held them to just one offensive rebound. That was huge.”
In the game’s final 8:10, Bellarmine, which shot a scorching 59.6 percent from the field in the victory (28-of-47), outscored FSU 23-11 to pull away for the win. The Knights, who were led by Vance Hall’s 28 points and Jake Thelen’s 22, also went 8-of-12 at the foul line in the last 1:37 to seal the victory.
In the last 8:10, FSU was limited to just three field goals and went just 5-of-10 at the foul line.
“It’s tough to lose this type of a game,” said FSU’s Browning, who had a good look at a 3-pointer which would’ve tied the game at 69 with 2:41 left to play but saw the shot rattle in and out and Bellarmine clear the rebound. “I thought for the most part we played hard and we battled back.
“I’m not going to say we got tired at the end. I mean maybe we were a little, but the biggest thing I think which hurt us is we had some lapses down the stretch on defense where we gave up an easy bucket and on offense where we failed to execute or turned it over. That’s what really hurt us. You can’t do that if you’re going to beat the No. 2 team in the country.”
Fairmont State will be idle now until Jan. 4 when it visits Urbana University for a 3 p.m. Mountain East Conference game in Urbana, Ohio. The Falcons will then face Notre Dame College on Jan. 6 on the road and finally return home Jan. 9 to host Wheeling Jesuit University.