On Jan.18, the Carleton men's basketball team lost at home to Bethel 70-61 and fell into a tie for eighth place at 3-7 halfway through the conference season. No one could have predicted what happened next.
Over the ensuing 40 days, the Knights became one of the hottest teams in the nation, winning 12 of 13 games en route to capturing the school's first ever MIAC playoff title last Saturday with a thrilling 78-71 overtime victory at Gustavus Adolphus. With the win, Carleton punched a ticket to the NCAA Tournament, which kicks off tonight at 8 p.m. when the Knights face University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point on the Pointers' home court.
With “MVP” chants raining down, junior all-MIAC guard Jeremy Sutherland led the Knights to victory with 22 points, six rebounds and five assists. Senior captain Bryan Rosett made sure to end his conference career with a bang, draining 6-of-7 shots en route to 19 points to go with eight boards, and all-conference pick Seth “Jonkey Kong” Jonker roasted the Gusties for 18 points, seven rebounds and four assists.
The game took on the feel of a title match from the outset, thanks in large part to two raucous bus-fulls of Carleton students who traveled to St. Peter for the contest. Both teams were on point all night, as only 12 combined turnovers were committed all game. A first half that featured four ties and 10 lead changes ended deadlocked at 32-32, but the Knights stormed out of the gates after the break and took a 48-40 lead on Sutherland's rainmaker with 13:36 to play. The resilient Gusites responded, however, mounting a 19-7 run to take a 59-55 lead with under four minutes remaining in regulation.
That's when things really got exciting. After Rosett's three-point play, a Gustie bucket, and a Kobe-like J from Sutherland brought the Knights within one, Jonker came up with a block on the defensive end. The Knights pushed the ball ahead, but appeared headed for a turnover on an errant fast-break pass until freshman Scott Theisen came out of nowhere to save the ball and call timeout as he fell out of bounds. Rosett rewarded the rookie's effort by draining a three-pointer out of the huddle and the Knights took a 63-61 lead with under two minutes to go.
After an offensive rebound, however, the Gusties tied it up on Paul Blacklock's layup with 54 seconds to play. Jonker then missed a layup on which goaltending easily could have been called as a Gustavus player altered the shot by slapping the backboard. Blacklock grabbed the board, setting up the Gusties for a final shot for all the marbles, but Seth Anderson couldn't convert and the game went to overtime.
But on this night, overtime meant Knight time. Carleton took over, with Sutherland scoring the extra period's first four points and six of the Knights first eight as the guests quickly grabbed a seven point lead and never looked back, making five of six field goal attempts and holding the Gusties to 3-of-11 shooting.
With anticipation building, the Carleton fans silenced the Gustie faithful, chanting “Whose House? Our House!” When the final horn sounded, Carls streamed onto the court to celebrate with their victorious Knights. After a chorus of the Alma Mater, the Carleton players put the final kiss on their turnaround MIAC season, cutting down the net at Gus Young Court. Fittingly, Young, a legendary former Gustie coach, was a Carleton graduate of 1932. Gus,your net finally came home.
As sweet as Saturday's historic win was, the Knights have no intentions of it being their last of this memorable season. To keep their improbable run going, however, Carleton will have to beat a powerful Stevens Point team that won the WIAC championship and enters the Big Dance ranked fifth nationally. The Pointers owned the MIAC earlier this season, routing Saint John's and St. Thomas in non-conference play. But that was last decade, and Stevens Point has proved vulnerable as it ended the regular season losing three of its final seven games. The Pointers are beatable if the Knights can play their trademark defense and keep the game low-scoring, as UWSP has gone just 3-3 this year when scoring under 70 points.
Tonight's game will be aired on Knights Online as well as KDHL 920 AM. If Carleton pulls out a win, they will play the winner of St. Norbert and Hope tomorrow at 7:00 p.m.
Stay tuned, Carls, because with the way your Knights are playing, anything is possible.