It was a moment on that Brandon Durnell isn’t going to forget soon.
In the closing seconds of Tuesday’s game at Saint Francis, the Homestead graduate and Spring Arbor sophomore took a pass from teammate and Warsaw grad Paul Marandet, calmly buried an open three-pointer and intensely buried Saint Francis 71-70 in front of his own hometown crowd in Fort Wayne.
“This may sound like an answer that everyone gives, but when I let go of the ball, I really did feel like it was good,” Durnell said, crediting Marandet’s ‘great pass’ for setting him up. “After the shot, there was a ton of emotion. I had a big crowd there, like I always do, and it felt good to make them all proud.”
Durnell has been a major catalyst for Spring Arbor’s run up the rankings in NAIA Division II. The Cougars (18-3) were ranked No. 8 before Durnell sank Saint Francis to build on their Crossroads League lead, where they are currently up on No. 3 Indiana Wesleyan by a game in the standings.
“That was a big conference game for us so I was super excited. It felt good to make my teammates proud as well. We have worked so hard so far this year,” Durnell said. “Everyone knows their role and does it so well. Everyone has fun no matter who is on the court. We are a brotherhood and we are having a blast.”
Spring Arbor had a nine-game win streak earlier this season, matching the program record for consecutive wins. When it knocked off IWU on December 8, the Wildcats were the top-ranked team in the nation.
“There is a unique culture here and it translates right to the court. We pride ourselves on working hard, playing smart, playing together and playing with toughness,” Durnell said. “When we do all of those things, w are going to be very tough to beat.”
After starting just one game as a freshman, Durnell has started 18 games this season. As his minutes have come up nearly double to 27.8 per game, so has his confidence and his shooting touch. Durnell’s field goal percentage of 56.9 percent is second on the team for those with at least 100 attempts. Against the criteria of those who have shot at least 124 times on the year, Durnell’s field goal percentage is 20th nationally at the NAIA Division II level.
Durnell’s scoring output, up to 348 points this season from 189 points as a freshman, could see him easily join the school’s 1,000 point club — currently with 44 members — by the time he is done at Spring Arbor. His 16.6 points per game is 11th best in the Crossroads League so far this season.
At Homestead High School, Durnell was a big part of the Spartans’ back-to-back sectional titles in 2017 and 2016, but was also part of the program as the team rallied off four (now five) straight sectional titles. Homestead also won the Summit Athletic Conference regular-season championship his junior year. He was an all-area player and Associated Press All-State Honorable Mention selection as a senior when the Spartans went 23-4, though only losing to two different teams.
When Homestead wins now, Durnell is one of the first to show his support on social media. While living the life of a college basketball player, he frequents games in the city when he can and has found time to mentor younger players like those with Total Package Elite, the same AAU organization he was part of in high school.
“I have had great support my entire life. From family, friends, teammates and coaches. I have had people teach me to play the game the right way and have pushed me to be better. That support system, they all know who they are, is a huge reason why I work so hard,” Durnell said.
Throughout this season, Durnell has been able to play against former high school opponents quite often. Tuesday night offered a plethora of guys Durnell is familiar with on the court for Saint Francis. The Cougars have also faced the likes of Grace College, Indiana Wesleyan, Michigan Dearborn, Huntington University and Bethel that feature former northeast Indiana high school standouts.
“The Fort Wayne basketball hoop scene is a great community and it is cool to be on the court with a bunch of guys that are having success of their own,” Durnell said.
The path to NAIA Division II seems commonplace now. Five of the top 25 teams in the January 8 coaches poll feature players from the northeast Indiana area. Seven teams in that poll are from the state of Indiana. Seven of the top 20 scorers in the Crossroads League are also from the area in Durnell, Kyle Mangas (Indiana Wesleyan/Warsaw), Trevion Crews (Bethel/North Side), Logan Godfrey (Grace/Snider), Konner Platt (Huntington University/Huntington North), Paul Forman (Bethel/Churubusco) and Marandet (Warsaw).
“The NAIA level, especially in the Crossroads League, is a such a high level of basketball. The Crossroads League is the best conference in the nation at that level,” Durnell said. “There have been so many great players that have played in it.”
The Cougars have been comfortable at home this season with perfect 9-0 mark in the McDonald Athletic Center. They remain the only team in the Crossroads League to have a perfect record at home this season. Perhaps that helps make Spring Arbor and Michigan more like home for Durnell now and into the future.
Spring Arbor will play conference foe Goshen on Saturday. A rematch with Indiana Wesleyan in Marion looms on February 12, although that game is still eight games out. Spring Arbor will play five more home games during the regular season.
“I think the biggest thing moving forward is going to be stepping into more of a leader role, being the best teammate I can be every single day,” Durnell said of his future with the Cougars. “I can’t get content. I have got to stay focused and keep working hard. This journey is flying by so I don’t want to look back when it is over and have any regrets.”