UMSL’s historic season ends in the Elite Eight

by | Mar 22, 2023

The Tritons battled top-ranked and unbeaten Nova Southeastern until the end in their first Elite Eight appearance since 1972 but fell 82-75.
Bowen Sandquist shoots a jumper over the outstretched arm of a Nova Southeastern defender in the NCAA Division II Men's Basketball Championship quarterfinals

Bowen Sandquist shoots a jump shot over the outstretched arm of a Nova Southeastern defender in the NCAA Division II Men’s Basketball Championship quarterfinals. Sandquist scored a team-high 15 points in UMSL’s 82-75 loss to top-ranked and unbeaten Nova Southeastern at the Ford Center Tuesday in Evansville, Indiana. (Photo by Patrick Clark/Athlete’s Eye Photography)

Members of the University of Missouri–St. Louis men’s basketball team were still dealing with the sting of a season-ending 82-75 defeat Tuesday night at the hands of top-ranked and unbeaten Nova Southeastern.

That it came to a close in a place no one anticipated – the Ford Center in Evansville, Indiana, site of the NCAA Division II Elite Eight – was not lost on Coach Bob Sundvold.

In his postgame press conference, he started talking about the mentality his players adopted that allowed them to defy all expectations this season, earning the Tritons’ third NCAA Tournament berth in four years and advancing to UMSL’s first national quarterfinal appearance since 1972 despite turning over the roster after losing in last year’s regional final.

“We have a saying that some days you’re the lead singer and some days you’re the tambourine man, and our guys all understand that,” he said. “It’s about growth. It’s about getting better. Some days you’re going to have a teammate [struggle], and you’ve got to pick him up.

“We’ve got a great locker room.”

He paused there and his lower lip seemed to quiver from behind the microphone on the table in front of him. He raised his hand to his mouth, then looked down and started tapping his arm as he collected himself to continue.

“It’s why you coach,” he said quietly. “Just seeing these guys do that.”

Sundvold witnessed it time and again throughout a season that saw the Tritons, picked to finish seventh in the Great Lakes Valley Conference preseason poll, win their first 12 games and climb as high as No. 4 in the country, then get humbled a bit by the grind of conference play.

At one point, UMSL lost four straight GLVC games and six of eight. But the team bounced back to reach the conference tournament final, beating top-seeded Indianapolis along the way, then rallied again from a GLVC Championship loss to McKendree to beat Wisconsin-Parkside, Ferris State and those same Bearcats en route to the Elite Eight.

The Tritons (24-11) did not get an easy draw as the No. 8 seed facing the top-ranked Nova Southeastern (34-0), which came in having won 64 of its 65 games over the past two seasons. The Sharks’ lone loss in that span came against eighth-seeded Black Hills State in last year’s national quarterfinals.

It looked for a while like Sundvold’s team might pull off a similar stunner as it played Nova Southeastern even through the first half and briefly opened up a four-point cushion, 51-47, on Bowen Sandquist’s 3-pointer with 12:05 remaining in the game.

The Tritons’ defense was frustrating the Sharks, holding them to 38.3% shooting, including 32.1% in the second half.

“I just thought we had really done some great things and survived playing some really bad possessions too,” said Sundvold, whose team struggled with turnovers throughout, committing 22 in the game, including 12 in the second half.

The Sharks finally grabbed the upper hand in the last four minutes. They connected on only five 3-pointers in the game, but two came back-to-back during an 8-0 run that broke open a tie score and put them ahead 71-63 with 3:01 remaining. Graduate student Will Yoakum delivered the second of those 3-pointers on a night when he scored a game-high 34 points.

UMSL couldn’t get closer than four points the rest of the way with Nova Southeastern scoring seven of its final 11 points at the foul line. It made 31 of 37 free throws in the game.

Sandquist led five UMSL players in double figures with 15 points. Donovan Vickers added 13 off the bench, Drew Cisse and Trever Moore each had 11, and freshman guard Matt Enright finished with 10 points. Leading scorers Isaiah Fuller and Victor Nwagbaraocha struggled, combining for 10 points on 4-for-14 shooting.

But no one was hanging their head after the Tritons’ performance on Tuesday or all they had accomplished this season.

“We kept pounding the rock and just getting better and better every day, which led us to sitting up here on stage talking to you guys,” Moore said in the interview room after Tuesday’s game.

He and Fuller finished their UMSL careers as the winningest players in school history, having been part of 90 victories over the past four seasons, and Sundvold was grateful the two got to experience the Elite Eight with their teammates before wrapping up.

“I just love this,” Sundvold said. “This has been great. Everything’s been first class. The banquet (on Sunday) was terrific. It had such a big feel for our guys, which is all I really wanted. I really wanted this to be a special week for them. Evansville did a terrific job, and the Ford Center’s great.”

Sundvold had been on that stage once before in 1995, when he led Central Missouri State to the Elite Eight. He had one request for his returning players.

“It’s been 28 years,” he said. “I did tell the guys I kind of want to come back, and I don’t have 28 years.”

Steve Walentik

Steve Walentik