Alex Hall scored 33 points and Drury’s Panthers are headed to the NCAA-II Final Four for the first time in the program’s history after defeating South Carolina-Aiken 84-75 in the national quarterfinals Thursday night at Freedom Hall.
And who awaits the nationally seventh-ranked Panthers (29-4) in Saturday’s national semifinals but a prime motivator – defending national champion and fourth-ranked Western Washington (31-2), which defeated Drury 72-69 in Las Vegas on Dec. 18 in the South Point Classic that WWU hosted at the South Point Hotel and Casino.
Coach Steve Hesser‘s Panthers reached that elite status behind a quick start fueled by Hall, a rally after falling behind briefly early in the second half, and then making the big stops and key buckets down the stretch.
It added up to a 21st consecutive victory for Drury, most in the program’s history and pulling these Panthers out of a tie with the 1977-78 DU squad that won 20 straight at the NAIA level.
Hall hit five more 3-pointers – giving him 114 now for the season, another DU mark after he topped the 112 by Matt Miller in 1999-2000. Hall now holds the trifecta of school records for single game (9), season and career (378) – but more importantly, has the Panthers in Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. (EST) semifinal at Western Washington in a game that will be shown nationally on CBS College Sports and locally in Springfield on KOZL.
This marks the first time since 1983 that the four semifinal qualifiers were all ranked in the top seven of the final NABC Top 25 poll. Third-ranked Metro State will play top-ranked West Liberty in Saturday’s first semifinal at noon (EST). The two survivors on Saturday will advance to Atlanta, Ga., for the national championship game on Sunday, April 7 at Philips Arena.
But Hall wasn’t the solo star despite cracking the 30-point barrier for the seventh time this season.
Drury bolted out of the gates to a 17-4 on its way to a 42-36 halftime advantage, but watched the Pacers (25-8) make their first four 3-pointers to open the second half and grab a 50-46 lead with 15:51 left.
Momentum clearly had shifted. But a large Drury contingent in the famed Freedom Hall – largest of the eight teams to reach the national quarterfinals – seemed to lift up the Panthers, and roared when sophomore Cameron Adams‘ slam capped a 7-0 DU run and put the Panthers back up 53-50 with 13 minutes left.
SC-Aiken never led again. A 9-0 run by Drury pushed the lead out to 11 (68-57) with 7:06 remaining – capped yet again by another Adams dunk – and DU never let the Pacers closer than five from there.
“I’m sitting up here right now because of these two young men and their commitment,” Drury coach Steve Hesser said in the post-game press conference, referring to Hall and senior point guard Brandon Lockhart. “We talk about at the end of the year, it’s about players stepping up and making plays. That’s March Madness. (Alex) stepped up and made some 3s, B-Lock split the defense and made the key layup late … you have two four-year starters here who make me a lot smarter as a coach.”
A final, massive Adams alley oop dunk off a Hall pass – the combination that closed out the regional title game against Bellarmine nine days ago – put the exclamation point on once again with 47 seconds left, giving the Panthers an 80-69 advantage and their fans finally able to think about sticking around Louisville for another couple of days.
Lockhart added 15 points – including a pivotal layup with 1:10 left to push the DU lead back to seven points – and seven assists, Teddy Simniok went 7 for 7 from the field and added 14 points and Adams matched Simniok with 14 points and tied Drake Patterson with a team-high seven rebounds.
Drury turned it over just 12 times while forcing 18 miscues by Aiken, which received a team-high 20 points from Ronald Zimmerman (including a 6-for-11 showing from 3-point range).
Nelson added 16 points and 10 assists despite battling foul woes that sent him to the bench for eight minutes in the first half.
“I thought once we settled down, we were able to get some things going,” Aiken coach Vince Alexander said, referencing the Pacers’ early 13-point deficit. “But very quickly, Re’mon picks up two fouls, and then a third … it’s tough for us to play without him being on the floor.”