Ticket punched: UMSL headed to NCAA Division II Elite Eight for second time in school history

by | Mar 14, 2023

The Tritons avenged a GLVC Championship loss to McKendree with 62-60 victory on Tuesday night, and they'll play next week in Evansville, Indiana.
Members of the UMSL men's basketball team pose with their regional championship trophy and a sign that says "Ticket Punched 2023"

The UMSL men’s basketball team is bound for the NCAA Division II Elite Eight for the second time in school history after knocking off McKendree 62-60 on Tuesday night in Indianapolis. (Photo by Jacob Walton/University of Indianapolis)

There was already plenty riding on the outcome of Tuesday night’s NCAA Division II Midwest Region Championship, from the trophy the victor would bring with them back home to campus to the even bigger opportunity they’d earn next week by clinching a berth in the Elite Eight in Evansville, Indiana.

But members of the University of Missouri–St. Louis men’s basketball team found one more bit of inspiration from nine days earlier as they took on McKendree in a rematch of the March 5 Great Lakes Valley Conference Tournament final. It might have been exactly what they needed to pull out their 62-60 victory at Nicoson Hall on the campus of the University of Indianapolis.

“I believe that the GLVC championship loss was probably the most motivating loss that we had this year, just seeing them celebrate and knowing that that was our game to win,” senior guard Trever Moore said in the postgame press conference, while seated near the trophy with a net clipped down from one of the baskets draped around his neck. “When we found out that we played McKendree again for the regional championship, it just motivated us even more, and we just realized we can beat them if we just play our game and play together, just stay positive in every situation.”

That ability to pull together and persevere was put to the test over the final 8½ minutes Tuesday night as the Bearcats chopped away at what had been an 18-point Tritons lead. They even pulled even at 59 in the final minute.

But senior guard Isaiah Fuller – who finished with a game-high 27 points – came through in the clutch, cutting to the basket and catching a pass from Janeir Harris, then lofting a high-arcing shot in off the glass to put UMSL back in front 61-59 with 19.5 seconds remaining. The Tritons didn’t relinquish the advantage.

“How dumb I am, I didn’t run the play for him,” Coach Bob Sundvold said of Fuller’s go-ahead basket in the press conference. “We thought we were going to get a switch and we could get Jay in the post, but Jay made a great pass to Ike. But you know, Ike’s done that all year. He’s had a terrific, terrific year – certainly an all-region, all-conference type of year. He’s just been coming through, and that was a big basket.”

McKendree star Bryson Bultman, who had a team-high 22 points, missed the first of his two free throws with 10.5 seconds left, so the Bearcats could only pull within one.

Fuller then missed the first of his two free throws at the other end but restored the two-point advantage with 8.0 seconds remaining.

With time running out, Bultman drove toward the lane and kicked the ball out to Caleb Zurliene on the wing, but his 3-pointer over the outstretched arm of 6-foot-10 forward Drew Cisse fell harmlessly to the floor, well short of the basket, as the Tritons went sprinting to the other end of the court to celebrate.

UMSL (24-10) won the regional championship and advanced to the national quarterfinals for only the second time in school history, the first one coming in the 1971-72 season. The Tritons will be seeded eighth and take on No. 1 Nova Southeastern (33-0) at 6 p.m. CDT on March 21 at the Ford Center in Evansville, Indiana. Watch the game free online at https://www.ncaa.com/game/6131066.

For Fuller, Moore, Sundvold and his staff, Tuesday night’s victory brought a bit of redemption. They had reached the regional final last year, only to lose to Hillsdale 73-63 in North Canton, Ohio.

But UMSL had to turn over the bulk of its roster, bringing in 12 newcomers to make up for the loss of linchpins such as Jose Grubbs, Marty Jackson, Yaakema Rose Jr., Steve Webb and Shane Wissink.

“I think the difference between these teams, this year’s team and last year’s team, is we’re just a little bit more hungry than last year’s team because going into the GLVC we were preseason No. 7,” Fuller said afterward. “Even the buzz around UMSL was, ‘Is the basketball team going to be good again?’ Me and Trev, we took it upon ourselves to tell everybody, ‘Look, don’t nobody believe in us but the guys in the locker room and the coaches, so just go in there with a chip on our shoulder, play the whole season with a chip on our shoulder, and then let everything else fall into place.’ I think that’s what happened.”

From those modest expectations, UMSL opened the season with a 12-game winning streak and climbed as high as No. 4 in the national rankings.

But it was the way the Tritons responded to struggles they encountered in the GLVC season, including a four-game losing streak in February and a pair of losses to McKendree – in the regular-season finale and in the GLVC Championship – that got them ready to make history in Indianapolis.

“These guys stepped up, and this leadership by these two (Fuller and Moore) was terrific,” Sundvold said. “That’s meaningful when you’re a coach and you see your guys come together.

“I told them today. We had to shoot around, and they’re coaching the defense better than our staff was. They were so in tune to how we’re going to do stuff, and that’s like a coach’s dream.”

Seeded second in the eight-team Midwest Region, UMSL showed off its offensive ability in high-scoring victories over seventh-seeded Wisconsin-Parkside and sixth-seeded Ferris State over the weekend, when they made 22 of 44 3-pointers.

But they had to grind to beat eighth-seeded McKendree (20-13), which came in riding an eight-game winning streak. On a night when UMSL made only 2 of 15 3-point attempts, it made up for it by holding the Bearcats to 41.2% shooting from the field, forced 14 turnovers and finished with a 33-30 rebounding advantage.

Victor Nwagbaraocha joined Fuller as the only players in double figures. He finished with 14 points and also came up with a key steal in the final two minutes. Cisse had nine points and a team-best eight rebounds.

“What they’ve done considering the guys that graduated and moved on from that program a year ago is tremendous,” McKendree Coach George Suggs said. “They deserve a ton of credit for going out and recruiting the right guys and getting them to play, and they’ve earned it. They’ve been great all year.”

Watch the NCAA Division II quarterfinal between UMSL and Nova Southeastern free online at https://www.ncaa.com/game/6131066.

Steve Walentik

Steve Walentik