The storyline of the weekend was the Hopkins men’s basketball team, as the now 12th-ranked Blue Jays won the Centennial Conference Tournament, the fourth title in school history.
Along the way, the Jays defeated the Franklin & Marshall College Diplomats, who were ranked up until last week, in the semifinals. Next, they defeated the host team and the now 14th-ranked Swarthmore College Garnet in the Championship.
The comeback-filled weekend was nothing short of thrilling, as the Blue Jays found themselves having to rally from a 10-point and a nine-point deficit in back-to-back games.
The semifinals did not start off as the Jays had hoped. They were held to 26 percent shooting in the first half and were down 25-15 heading into halftime.
Freshman guard Joey Kern addressed the team’s confidence despite their offensive struggles.
“We came out in the first half so afraid to make any mistakes,” Kern said. “We knew we had to come out loose in the second half and start making shots. As soon as we made our first three of the second half (and of the game I believe), the whole team lit up with emotion and we started celebrating our threes.”
Along with junior guard Michael Gardner, who led the Blue Jays with 13 points, Kern was the offensive spark for Hopkins at a time when they desperately needed one.
Kern scored eight of his 10 points in the second half. Over a 20-second span, he single-handedly went on a 5-0 run with a three-pointer and two free throws, which took Hopkins from down 42-45 to up 47-45.
With 58 seconds remaining, however, the Diplomats took a two-point lead after a layup by junior J.C. McGrath.
Senior forward Kyle Doran then split a pair of free throws to bring Hopkins within one. Finally, a steal and a layup from freshman guard Conner Delaney secured a 50-49 win and a spot in the Conference Finals for the Blue Jays.
After beating Ursinus College 68-49 in the other semifinals, the top-seeded Swarthmore Garnet clinched their spot in the finals.
Junior forward Daniel Vila, a defensive leader for the Blue Jays who had four steals and a block against Franklin & Marshall, discussed the team’s defensive preparation.
“We knew that F&M and Swarthmore were both good teams and that they would be a good test for us because of how we played them the week before, but a big emphasis for us all year has been to compete,” Vila said. “We did a good job preparing for both of their offenses with our practices leading up to the tournament.”
The Championship started off similarly for Hopkins. Even though the Jays did a better job of creating scoring opportunities, they still found themselves down 34-25 at the half.
Just like in the semifinals, the Blue Jays did not hang their heads due to the halftime deficit.
“I think we all recognized that it was pretty similar to our first half against F&M the day before; we were down about 10 points, hadn’t shot well, and even though we hadn’t been playing our best, we were definitely still in the game,” Vila said.
Hopkins came out firing on all cylinders in the second half. In the first 10 minutes of the half, the Blue Jays went on a 23-9 run, taking a 48-43 lead.
The offensive explosion came from four players scoring in double figures, including sophomore forward Harry O’Neil (11) and Doran (11), who was recently named to the 2017 CoSIDA Academic All-District Team for District II.
Though the Garnet’s efforts kept the game within six points until the final buzzer, the Blue Jays did not surrender their lead for the rest of the way.
Swarthmore was led by junior Cam Wiley who led all players with 20 points.
With 20 seconds left to play, the Jays held a 55-53 lead. Gardner then sunk six straight free throws to clinch the victory for Hopkins and the Conference title.
Gardner’s 14 points per game and clutch shooting over the weekend earned him the Tournament MVP award.
Defensively, Vila led the way again with another three steals, bringing his weekend total to seven.
With the Championship victory over Swarthmore, head coach Josh Loeffler became the only first-year coach in Conference history to take home the title and won Conference Coach of the Year.
Hopkins has been selected to host the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament, which will feature La Roche College, SUNY Brockport and 19th-ranked MIT.
The Blue Jays will take a 13-game win streak into the NCAA Tournament. This streak includes a 4-0 record against the Conference’s toughest competition, the Diplomats and the Garnet.
Kern spoke about the team’s focus and preparation heading into the tournament.
“We’ve been harping on rebounding better as a team, since most teams have a size advantage over us, but as far as a game plan goes, I don’t think we’ll change very much,” Kern said. “Minor tweaks will get us ready for the Big Dance.”
Kern also discussed what the Blue Jays’ impressive run has meant to him personally and how it has impacted the beginning of his college experience.
“This season has been the most fun I’ve had playing basketball” Kern said. “This group of guys is truly special. Any success that I’ve had on the court this year is attributed to my teammates for making me feel at home here in Baltimore.”
The Blue Jays will be hosting the NCAA tournament for the first time in three years, and the Jays are looking to capitalize on the opportunity.
Vila, who was named Defensive Player of the Year, discussed the coming weekend.
“We’re excited to give our seniors two more games at home in front of what I’m sure will be another great turnout by the Goldfarb Gang,” Vila said.
Several other Jays earned Conference awards: Delaney earned Honorable Mention and was named Rookie of the Year; senior Jesse Flannery made the All-Sportsmanship Team; and Doran and Gardner both earned First-Team honors.
In the first round, Hopkins will face La Roche, who earned an automatic bid after winning their Conference. Be sure to support the Jays on Friday, March 2 at 7:30 p.m. in Goldfarb Gym.