Mistake-plagued Bethel downed by Southwestern in KCAC men's basketball final
Missed shots, fouls haunt Threshers' bid for second tournament title in three seasons.
PARK CITY — When the KCAC men’s basketball tournament final got underway at Hartman Arena on Monday night, neither third-seeded Bethel nor fourth-seeded Southwestern could’ve been happy with their offensive outputs through the first five minutes.
But then, the Moundbuilders kicked it into gear. And from there, an old saying adequately fits Southwestern’s mindset for the next 35 minutes:
What you can do, I can do better.
“We were 6-for-20 inside the lane in the first half,” Bethel head coach Jayson Artaz said. “And then the ‘non-shooters’ on [Southwestern] shot 50 percent from three. … You combine our inability to finish with their ability to finish [and] make shots, that puts you in a big hole.”
That hole felt like the Grand Canyon as the Moundbuilders capitalized on mistake after Thresher mistake, namely with the officials. By the end of the night, Southwestern had attempted 27 free throws and converted 26 of them en route to an 83-74 victory over Bethel.
For Artaz, the performance by a seemingly on-edge Bethel team — stamped by a flagrant foul on freshman Carmelo Yakubu midway through the second half — was too reminiscent of the team’s struggles in the fall semester stages of the campaign. It was also too far of a cry from the team that had entered the night on an eight-game winning streak, won 13 of its last 15 contests, and had posted a 57-point first half in a semifinal win just two days prior.
“The whole game, we looked nervous,” Artaz said. “Panicked, I thought. We looked like the team from the first half of the season. As soon as something went bad, we couldn't rebound. And things went downhill because we were relying on individuals trying to fix it instead of us all doing it together.
“I think [it was uncharacteristic] how we handled adversity. It was a struggle. So that's probably the most frustrating part for me.”
That adversity was squared in front of the Threshers early and often as they kept go-to Moundbuilder scorer Cevin Clark in check in the early going, but were beaten by volume from the field by the likes of Andrew O’Brien — who erupted for 16 points in the first half alone — and Deng Bol, who finished the night with 23 points. A pair of threes on three possessions forced a quick Bethel timeout, with Southwestern jumping to an early 14-7 lead.
The Moundbuilders kept the Threshers at arm’s length as Bethel seniors Clifford Byrd II and Bryant Mocaby combined for a 5-for-16 effort offensively through the first 20 minutes. When the buzzer sounded for halftime, Southwestern’s advantage had grown to 15 at 46-31, matching (or one-upping) any positive development for Artaz’s group in the final stretch of the frame.
“Southwestern came out hot pretty hot,” Byrd II said. “We let [their] players that don't score as much get hot, so that kind of helps Southwestern even more. And it was tough getting back to that — we had to find ourselves again, which is tough when you’re almost down by 20 going into the half.
“We just didn't play like ourselves.”
The Threshers began the second half much more efficiently than how they ended the first, though Southwestern continued to manage well as Clark got his feet under him and pounded his way to 29 points in the outing to keep a Moundbuilder lead in the mid-to-late teens. With 5:32 left in regulation, Southwestern’s lead was as large as 21.
Then, Bethel proceeded to embark on its first notable run of the evening, outscoring the Moundbuilders 15-2 over a four-minute stretch to cut its deficit to just eight, led by Byrd II — who led the Threshers in scoring with 19 points. But with under a minute-and-a-half on the clock, Southwestern knocked down another handful of free throws to put the nail in the coffin.
For the second straight season, the Threshers watched the opposition dribble out the clock and celebrate a conference tournament title in the middle of Hartman Arena’s elevated court.
And for a team that battled back from a slow start — one that many believed would mark the end of Bethel’s run as one of the KCAC’s best — Artaz notes that it’s the journey that signals just how special his group can be.
“Honestly, it took a lot of things [to turn the season around],” Artaz said. “It took all of our guys buying into what we do. We have three freshmen in the top eight [of our scorers]. I mean, you're relying on three freshmen early in the season, they probably weren't ready — but they had to be ready for us to be good. … We've been able to settle into some roles.
“I'm proud of our guys because if you would’ve told me we’d be sitting here at the KCAC championship game in December, I would’ve told you you’re an idiot. It shows the character those guys have because people wrote us off pretty early this year. To come back and play well is a testament to them.”
Yakubu was second for the Threshers in scoring with 17 points. Mocaby and Harper Jonas each scored 10. As a team, Bethel was out-shot and out-rebounded but tallied more points in the paint and turnovers forced than Southwestern.
With the result, Bethel is 20-10 overall, while Southwestern improves to 25-6. The Moundbuilders clinched an automatic NAIA playoff berth with the win. Artaz and his team now await a potential at-large berth. Pairings will be announced on Thursday at 7 p.m.
“We're about as hot as anybody,” Artaz said. “Beat two ranked teams in the second half of the season, [won] 13 of our last 16 down the stretch, and I think early on in the season, you lose an All-American from the previous year, you're gonna have some bumps in the road. … Once we got healthy in the second semester, I think we’re a national tournament team.”
However, if this is it for the Thresher seniors, Artaz recognizes that they’ve become the new standard for his program.
“This is the best class to ever go through [Bethel] basketball,” Artaz said. “I mean, when you start talking about [Byrd II] and [Mocaby], and even the guys we had last year … I don’t know if Bethel has ever had three winning seasons in a row — much less three conference championship [games] in a row.
“I told them that your only goal when you join a program is to leave the jersey in a better place and you found it, and those guys put that jersey so high up on the wall that it's gonna be hard for everybody else to live up to. … But [if we] get guys like that every year, we’ll always be pretty good.”