Junior guard Jeremy Knowles hit a go-ahead three-pointer in the closing seconds to give the Cavaliers a place in the NCAA Division III National Championship game with an 81-78 win over the Illinois Wesleyan University Titans at the Salem Civic Center in Salem, Va., on Friday, March 16.
The win advances the Cavaliers to their first national title game and puts them just a win away from the first national championship in school history.
Playing on such a big stage may have led some to believe Cabrini would start the game slow like they had for several games before. Instead, both teams had early success from the floor but no one was more successful than senior guard John Boyd. Boyd hit six three-point shots in the first half and finished the half with 24 points.
“The shots were just falling,” Boyd said. “I always shoot and I gain confidence after I make a couple. My coaches and teammates just kept telling me to keep shooting and relax. It’s just confidence.”
“He hits a few shots like that, it just opens the defense up for us,” senior guard Cory Lemons said. “How it was working, it was going in. I was happy for him.”
Boyd would finish with a career-high 34 points and tied a career-high with seven three-pointers. Lemons and sophomore forward Fran Rafferty each added 11 points.
Cabrini shot 51 percent from the floor in the first half, a dominating percentage compared to the 41 percent that the Titans were shooting. Still, the Cavalier lead was held to just three points at the break.
The second half did not start the way the Cavs wanted. Their three-point lead evaporated quickly and before long, the Cavaliers had gone minutes without hitting a shot.
Halfway through the second half, Cabrini found their championship dreams on life support, trailing by as much as nine with less than seven minutes to play. Despite being outshot and outrebounded in the second half, the Cavaliers were only more determined to prove themselves.
“I think this game, similar to the last 32 for us, has been about no quit,” head coach Marcus Kahn said. “That’s the best thing about our team is that we just don’t know how to quit.”
The Cavaliers went on a 9-2 run to close the lead to two in a matter of minutes and found themselves in a back-and-forth run to the finish with the Titans.
With the score tied at 76 with one minute to play, Jeremy Knowles jumped into the spotlight. Knowles was just 1-10 from the floor in the game and had just two points. But his layup with 35 seconds left gave the Cavs a two-point lead.
The Titans tied the score on a jumper by senior guard Stephen Rudnicki with 13 seconds left.
That’s when the Cavs worked their magic and Knowles hit the biggest shot of his career. With 3.5 seconds left, Knowles drained a three-pointer from the corner to put the Cavs on top. The Titans’ desperation heave could not extend the game and the Cavaliers had moved on to the national title game.
“I had confidence in my shot even though I was struggling,” Knowles said. “I knew it was going in.”
“The design of it was to spread everyone out as wide as we can, let [freshman forward] Aaron [Walton-Moss] or Cory [Lemons] have the ball and everybody else spot up around them,” Kahn said. “The play was actually designed to leave his hands and have the buzzer go off. We wanted to make sure we had the last shot at it.”
That last shot gives Cabrini the chance for their first national title in school history. They play for the title tomorrow night at 7 p.m. against the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, a team ranked No. 8 in the nation. Cabrini will once again be the home team.
In their road to the Final Four, Cabrini’s toughest challenge had come in the second round against Hobart College, a game that went to overtime. Kahn said it took a gritty team to win that night, a quality that was on full display during this game.
“You get down nine, this team is beating you up inside, it would probably be an easy time to say ‘we had a good run this year,’” Kahn said. “We are gritty. We have an edge about us. That’s why we’re here.”
Now, one more win will make Cabrini’s men’s basketball team national champions. Once again, it is the players that the fourth-year coach credits for the chance.
“We’ve got good players who play together and play hard and know how to win,” Kahn said.
And it is the players that know this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
“It’s a dream come true,” Knowles said. “You never expect to be in this position that we are right now. Just enjoy it today and get ready for tomorrow.”