MISHAWAKA—The last few weeks of the men’s basketball season were interesting, to say the least. The team lost seven of its last nine regular-season games, including a 117-104 loss to Mount Vernon Nazarene in the quarterfinals of the Crossroads League tournament that many people thought ended the Pilots tournament chances. However, just eight days after that quarterfinal defeat, the Pilots were selected for the national tournament.
“After we lost to Mount Vernon in the conference tournament, we gave the team six days off to recharge, recuperate and just get a mental break,” Head Coach Steve Drabyn said. “We had a lot of guys play a lot of minutes that they weren’t used to. Once we got back though, we didn’t look at any other teams. We focused on us and cleaning up different parts of our game. Then once we were named to the national tournament it gave us a whole new boost of energy.”
Their first opponent in the NAIA National Tournament was the seventeenth-ranked team in the country, the Eagles of Texas A&M-Texarkana. Entering this season, the NAIA adjusted the tournament structure by expanding the teams and adding an opening round site. The Pilots were sent to Omaha, Nebraska for their opening round. On March 12, the Pilots opened play versus Eagles and won 73-69. Now only one thing separated the Pilots for a Sweet Sixteen berth: the tenth-ranked Providence Argonauts led by All-American Zaccheus Darko-Kelly. The Pilots rallied from eleven points down with 6:13 remaining in the game to win 85-81. TreVion Crews piled on 39 points for the Pilots to carry them into the Sweet Sixteen. By winning the first two games in the National Tournament, the Pilots earned a one-week break before heading to Kansas City for the remaining rounds.
“This season was a roller coaster,” Sophomore Life Granville, who plays guard, said. “We had some ups and some downs, but it meant that we had to step up. The cliché of ‘everyone has a role’ really rang true for this team because I’m just a role player, but I had to play some minutes in some big situations. I think this brought us closer together as a team because of some of our struggles. We were heavily battle-tested throughout the season, and the mistakes that we made throughout the season helped us grow. Mistakes are only a positive if you learn from them, and I think we grew exponentially.”
The team’s first matchup in Kansas City was against the number one team in the nation, and the Pilots’ conference foe, the Indiana Wesleyan Wildcats, led by All-American and two-time national player of the year Kyle Mangas. The Pilots faced off against the Wildcats twice in the regular season. Both times the Pilots lost, but this time the sixteenth-seeded Pilots took down the Wildcats in the Sweet Sixteen with a score of 83-77. The Pilots trailed for most of the second half, including multiple six-point deficits in the half. The resilient Pilots, however, did not quit and took the lead back with 2:36 remaining, and outscored the Wildcats 13-5 in that stretch. With the win the Pilots qualified for their fifth Elite Eight trip since 2008 against the twenty-first ranked Saint Francis Cougars, another Crossroads League team. The Pilots split the season series with the Cougars, winning on the road and losing at home. The Pilots blitzed the Cougars with a 44-28 lead with 4:28 left in the first half, but the Cougars rallied with a 40-13 run that saw them leading 68-57 with 9:30 left in the game, and the Pilots never came back.
“I was really pleased with the team that we put together,” Drabyn said. “We really did a nice job in our early season preparation. But we ran into a two-week quarantine, where eight guys got quarantined. Although we had a couple of hiccups early, we rattled off eight straight games in conference play, but then lost three key players with season-ending injuries. We then had to figure out things after they went down. But I am really pleased to see our team's resiliency after the hurdles that we faced throughout the season.”
Next season, the Pilots will attempt to reclaim the magic that they had at the end of this season. They will lose three players due to graduation, including TreVion Crews, Nick Pluta and Nicoloy Bailey. Crews will leave Bethel as the program’s sixth leading scorer with 2,223 points. He will also leave with the best scoring average for any Pilot in a single season at 24.6 points per game. Although Crews will be a big loss, the Pilots will get three crucial players back from injury, including Zac Owens, Garrett Suedekum and Filip Segota.
“At Bethel, the expectations are always high,” Drabyn said. “I think we’ll be better next year, and that’s not bashing the guys that are leaving us. It’s crediting them. They are leaving this program in a great spot. Our culture is very good, and the team chemistry will be there. I think how we performed in the national tournament will spearhead their confidence and drive for more.”
The Pilots will also have six of their top nine scorers back for the 2021-22 season, including both Jared DeHart and Nathan Aerts, who increased their scoring averages by around seven points per game.
For more information on the men’s basketball team, visit www.bupilots.com.