Capacity crowd. Incredible atmosphere. Tie game. Less than a minute to play. A championship and an NCAA Tournament bid on the line. What could be better?
Nothing, as all 1,500 fans who crammed every available nook of Bethel's Robertson Center learned Saturday night, as No. 2-seeded Bethel pulled out a remarkable 79-75 victory over No. 4-seeded Saint John's to give the Royals their second Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) Men's Basketball Playoff championship – and first trip to the NCAA Tournament – since 1991.
With the score tied at 72-72, Bethel's Bridgeport Tusler was fouled on a drive and made two free throws to give the Royals (21-6) a lead. However, Saint John's (19-9) David Stokman had an emphatic answer as he drove to the hoop, got fouled and willed in the layup to tie the game, then coolly added the freebie to put SJU up 75-74, with 21 seconds to play.
Trading big shot for big shot, the Royals' Trevor Hall worked the left side of the lane and banked in a runner to put Bethel back in front – this time for good – with 10 seconds left. Bethel jumped a passing lane and got a steal on the ensuing possession, and Tusler made three of four free throws in the closing seconds to salt away a historic win for the Royals, and cap off an unforgettable night for the fans fortunate to be in attendance.
Following the game, Bethel – which shared its first-ever regular-season MIAC crown with St. Thomas – received the MIAC Playoff championship plaque as well as the conference's automatic bid to the 2017 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament. The NCAA will announce the national tournament field on Feb. 27 at 11:30 a.m. with a live online selection show. This was Bethel's third recent appearance in the title game (2009 and 2015) and first Playoff title since 1991.
Things were tight in the early-going until Bethel's Tusler converted a three-point play to give the home team its first breathing room – a five-point edge 11 minutes into the game. Another Tusler layup stretched the Bethel lead to eight, 32-24, with three minutes left in the half, but Saint John's got a spark before the buzzer when Garrett Goetz – the buzzer-beating hero of the semifinal win over St. Thomas – drained three-pointers on back-to-back possessions to get his team within four, 34-30, at the half.
The Royals clung to their slim lead in the opening moments of the second half until Goetz connected from deep again to pull SJU within one, and David Stokman followed with a pair of free throws to give the Johnnies a 40-39 lead. SJU's hot shooting continued, as it pushed the lead to nine midway through the half. But that's when Bethel made its move. The Royals countered with a 10-2 run, keyed by six points by Derek Magnuson, to tie things up at 63-63 with six minutes to play and set up the thrilling final minute.
Stokman and Tusler shared top billing, as each guard starred for their respective teams. Stokman netted a game-high 33 points, shooting 10-for-20 from the floor and a perfect 10-for-10 from the line with five rebounds and four assists. Tusler was the Royals' driving force all night in their championship win with 26 points on 8-for-11 shooting, plus 9-for-11 from the line, with four rebounds and three steals.
Bethel also got 16 points, four assists and three steals from Brycen Wojta, 10 points and five boards from Derek Magnuson, and Trevor Hall, Granger Kingland and Jack Jenson each scored nine for the home team.
Saint John's shot 50 percent (26-for-52) from the floor and only missed one free throw (15-for-16), while Bethel was nearly identical going 28-for-59 (.475) from the floor and 17-for-20 (.850) from the line.
Fans can re-live the 2017 MIAC Men's Basketball Playoffs on the tournament home page, which includes scores, stats, recaps, photos, links and information on each of the six teams in the field. Fans can also continue the conversation on social media through the Bethel's Facebook, Instagram or Twitter accounts, using the hashtag #BURoyals.