With a rowdy and raring-to-go student section anxiously stationed just ahead of him, CJ Fleming knocked down one free throw after another as the noise in Freedom Hall reached a crescendo.
The Bellarmine University men's basketball team was moments away from completing an improbable mission. On this night, the Knights would prove it wasn't an impossible one.
In only its second year in Division I, Bellarmine captured the ASUN Championship title with a 77-72 victory Tuesday, March 8 over the Jacksonville Dolphins, as scarlet-clad fans stormed the court to celebrate.
"Believe" was the motto selected by the Knights players this season, and they never wavered in their faith in themselves, even when it came to winning a conference championship while still being a fledgling member of the D-I ranks.
"I don't know how any coach at any level of any sport could be more proud than I am," Knights Coach Scott Davenport said. "My highlight of this journey is seeing this team celebrate each other. That locker room was one of the highlights of my life."
In addition to its first-ever D-I conference title, Bellarmine (20-13) added another unprecedented feat by notching its first-ever 20-win season in the NCAA's highest level. As far as the championship run, the West two-seed Knights bookended a 53-50 upset of defending champion and East one-seed Liberty on the Flames' home floor with a pair of wins in Freedom Hall, beginning with an 81-68 triumph over East three-seed FGCU and concluding with the victory over East two-seed Jacksonville (21-10).
"It's kind of surreal," said senior guard Dylan Penn, who was named Tournament MVP. "It feels like we're in a movie. We weren't supposed to be competing at such a high level this early."
"It's something that will hopefully be remembered for a long time," added senior guard Juston Betz.
The finale was witnessed by 6,251 mostly adoring fans, who flooded onto the court once the final buzzer sounded. The siege was led by Bellarmine students, who were eagerly awaiting the chance to storm the floor and celebrate the historic accomplishment.
"It was absolutely amazing, and we're thankful for every single person that came out tonight," Fleming said. "The student support was absolutely amazing. We were just getting swarmed. It was such an amazing feeling."
Bellarmine was buoyed by a sizzling start from 3-point range. The Knights led by as many as 18 in the first half, and while Jacksonville continued to battle and stave off a runaway, Bellarmine nonetheless never lost command.
With seven minutes left, senior forward Ethan Claycomb dropped in a putback to push Bellarmine's lead to 15. Jacksonville rallied to within 66-60 with 1:46 left, but Fleming would proceed to sink eight straight free-throw attempts while finishing 11-for-11 from the charity stripe. He also buried four 3-pointers in racking up a career- and game-high 27 points and set a new single-season program record for 3-pointers made with 84.
Penn hit 9-of-15 shots in registering 22 points, six rebounds and four assists. After a third straight brilliant performance, he was chosen as the Tournament MVP while Fleming and Betz, who ripped down a game-high nine rebounds, joined him on the All-Tournament Team.
Bellarmine didn't waste much time in getting a giddy Freedom Hall crowd engaged. Penn, Betz and freshman forward Curt Hopf canned consecutive 3-pointers to get the offense going. With about 12 minutes left in the first half, Fleming provided the first double-digit lead on a triple.
Penn followed a trifecta by junior guard Garrett Tipton with a basket as the lead swelled to 18 with a little under 10 minutes left before the break. Jacksonville would get steadied, but Bellarmine still took a 36-26 advantage into halftime behind 9-for-16 shooting from beyond the arc, three of which came from junior forward Sam DeVault and the big lift he provided off the bench.
Penn opened the second half by nailing a jumper, and Bellarmine led by double digits the majority of the second half, turning back every threat by Jacksonville.
"Give all credit to them. They played an incredible game from start to finish," Dolphins Coach Jordan Mincy said. "Those young men played their hearts out. It was a great environment to be a part of."
Davenport was hoping to take in the postgame scene on the court, but he said he was blocked by the sea of scarlet.
"I stood back as far as I could to watch them cut down the nets, but I couldn't see them," he said. "It sounded every bit like there was 16,000 fans, and I've coached here when there's been 16,000."
Normally, a conference tournament champion is awarded an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. However, Bellarmine is in the second of a four-year transitional period from D-II to D-I that prohibits the Knights from competing in the "Big Dance," per NCAA rules.
Bellarmine will play again this season. The Knights just don't know where yet.
"I'll take off tomorrow. That's as far as we've gone," quipped Davenport.
"We've made it a point to control what we can control, and that's it," Betz said. "We'll continue to be in the moment and never take for granted where we are."