The headline of the weekend was the Hopkins men’s basketball team, as the 16th-ranked Blue Jays won the Centennial Conference Tournament, the fourth title in school history.
Along the way, the Jays defeated the Franklin and Marshall College Diplomats, who were ranked up until last week, in the semifinals and the hosting, 11th-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 didn’t start off as Hopkins had hoped. The Blue Jays were held to 26 percent shooting in the first half and were down 25-15 heading into halftime.
Freshman guard Joey Kern spoke about the team’s confidence in spite of their offensive struggles.
“We came out in the first half so afraid to make any mistakes,” Kern said. “We knew we’d come out loose in the second half and start making shots. As soon as we made our first three of the second half (and 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 singlehandedly 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.
Franklin and Marshall answered with two free throws from sophomore Ignas Slyka to tie the game up at 47.
The next three minutes of game time did not see a single point scored by either team.
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 semifinal matchup, the Garnet clinched the other spot in the Championships.
Junior forward Daniel Vila, a defensive leader for the Blue Jays who had four steals and a block against Franklin and Marshall, discussed the team’s preparation defensively.
“We knew that F&M and Swat 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,” he 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 to the previous game for Hopkins. Even though they did a better job of creating scoring opportunities, the Jays found themselves down 34-25 at the half.
As they did in the semifinals, the Blue Jays did not hang their heads due of 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 in the second half firing on all cylinders. In the first 10 minutes of the half, the Jays went on 23-9 run, taking 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.
The Blue Jays didn’t surrender their lead the rest of the way, although Swarthmore’s efforts kept the game within six points until the final buzzer. The Garnet were led by junior Cam Wiley, who led all players with 20 points.
With twenty 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 made him deserving of the Tournament’s 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.
Hopkins has been selected to host the first and second rounds of the upcoming NCAA Tournament, which will also feature the La Roche College Redhawks, the SUNY Brockport Golden Eagles and the 25th-ranked Massachusetts Institute of Technology Beavers.
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 have 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 here and there will get us ready for the Big Dance.”
Kern also discussed what the Blue Jays’ impressive run has meant to him personally and impacted the beginning of his college experience.
“This season has been the most fun I’ve had playing basketball in my life,” he 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.”
In anticipation of hosting the first round, Vila said, “We’re excited to give our seniors two more games at home in front of what I’m sure will be another great turn out by the Goldfarb Gang and are going to keep competing as hard as we can to get the results we want.”
In the first round, Hopkins will face La Roche, who earned an automatic bid after winning the Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference title. Be sure to come out and support the Jays on Friday, March 2 at 7:30 p.m. in Goldfarb Gym.