Jared Nelson graduated from Bethel with a degree in Journalism last May, where he played four years on the men's basketball team. He led the MIAC in three-point shooting percentage as a senior and was Editor-in-Chief for Bethel's student newspaper. Nelson is originally from Lino Lakes and works as the Communications Manager for PrepHoops.com.
"Really try to be impartial today," Bethel's Sports Information Director told us before Bethel and St. John's played last week for the MIAC men's basketball championship. We knew it wasn't going to be easy.
Sean Baumgard and I, who broadcast our school's games on the Internet, wanted Bethel to win. Badly. We're former Bethel players who graduated last year, and some of our best friends are still on the team. But our boss knew that a lot of people would be watching and wanted things to go perfectly.
For 39 minutes and 55 seconds of the game, we were successful.
But with five seconds left in the one-point game, Bethel guard Bridge Tusler stole the ball and secured the conference title and a trip to the NCAA Division III tournament.
"HE'S LOOSE! HE'S LOOSE!" Sean yelled after the steal and as Tusler was trying to dribble out the clock. There was still one second left and Bethel was headed to the free throw line, but we were struggling for words, already jumping around, high-fiving and hugging everyone around us. (We don't have a big fancy booth for our broadcasts - we stand in the upper deck with a couple of cameras and a laptop.)
It's not like this is the first time Bethel has fielded a competitive basketball team, but ….
The Royals have played in the conference tournament in all but two of the last 19 years, but always fell short, including two seasons ago when a shot that would have tied the game rimmed out at the final buzzer. I was a guard on that team, which lost to St. Thomas.
Anyone familiar with MIAC hoops knows that St. Thomas has laid claim over the league since the turn of the century, and this year wasn't much different, except the Royals were neck-and-neck with the Tommies atop the conference standings for most of the regular season. We finished in a tie.
It was the 12th straight title for St. Thomas. It was our first ever.
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After Bethel defeated Carleton in the semifinal of the MIAC playoffs, 100 or so fans milled around on the court, crowding around cell phones watching St. John's defeat St. Thomas in the other semifinal. The crowd cheered as it was announced that the Royals would host the conference championship for the first time.
But almost immediately there were skeptical whispers about the logistics of hosting the biggest game of the season in not-so-big Robertson Center. Our gym holds 1,500 when packed to capacity, which isn't often. The Bethel community isn't known for its fervent support of athletics, but a historic occasion like this was sure to bring out the people, and St. John's fan base is large and avid.
It was announced doors would be opened at 5:45 p.m. for a 7 p.m. start.
By 6:15, the doors were shut.
The PA announcer pleaded with people to clear the aisles and a warned that their seats would be up-for-grabs if they left. Still, fans spilled out of their rows trying to find a little extra space. Standing-room-only areas were marked with ropes and packed. Those who couldn't get in filed into a lecture hall on campus to watch our video and listen to us.
The action on the court lived up to the atmosphere – a-back-and-forth affair with nine ties, six lead-changes and each team holding at least an eight-point lead at some point before Tusler's defensive heroics and game-clinching free throws gave Bethel the win, 79-75, and send the Royals to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1991.
We ended the webcast as quickly as possible. There was a quick compliment to the Johnnies on an excellent season and then it was down to the court to celebrate with the team. I am fortunate to be close to my former teammates and a small part of the team by doing the commentary on our home games. While I wasn't invited to climb the ladder and help cut down the net, I hugged a lot of them and was reminded of how a season like this one can bring a school together.
The Royals will travel on Friday to play the University of Wisconsin-River Falls Falcons in the first round of the Division III tournament. The team was introduced at Chapel this week and there's a buzz about basketball right now that you wouldn't typically associate with Bethel basketball.
On Wednesday, the school put 100 student tickets on sale and they sold out.
In 15 minutes.