2017 Homestead graduate Brandon Durnell led Spring Arbor (Mich.) to a NAIA Division II national championship on Tuesday night. The Cougars beat Oregon Tech 82-76 in Sioux Falls, South Dakota in a game broadcast on ESPN3.
A sophomore, Durnell scored a game high 32 points in the national title game win. It was his best scoring game in a tournament full of top notch offensive efforts. He did so on 12-of-17 shooting while adding eight rebounds.
When the final buzzer sounded, Durnell knelt down near midcourt with a look of awe and contentment on this face.
“I was so emotional because I have been working so hard at this thing for the last few years. I didn’t really take basketball seriously until my sophomore year [of high school] so I had to catch up and work extra hard to be able to play at the next level,” Durnell told Outside the Huddle on Tuesday night.
“I’ve had so many people that were supporting me; it was a must win for me. And when that clock hit zero I knew I just accomplished something that I will never forget.”
The game was between the 7th (Spring Arbor) and 8th (Oregon Tech) teams in the country in NAIA Division II. They were both #2 seeds in their respective brackets to start the 32 team tournament. No #1 seed made it to the national semifinal round.
Spring Arbor’s energy and a little bit of depth played a big role in the second 10 minutes of the first half. The first 10 minutes of the game were back and forth despite Spring Arbor (30-7) not allowing a three point make for over 13 minutes in the first half. Once they established a lead, it played a big role in allowing them to get their starters rest and use their bench depth.
When Durnell buried a three right in front of the Oregon Tech bench with just over 90 seconds left in the first half, Spring Arbor had extended the lead to double digits for the first time at 42-30. It was Spring Arbor’s seventh three pointer made in their first 10 attempts. Durnell hit his last four shots of the opening half after a somewhat slow start and finished the half with 12 total points.
“We hit a wall in the first half, and to make a run like we did to end the half was so important,” Durnell said. “I really believe that winning the first four minutes of each half and the last four minutes of each half is the most important part of the game.”
“He’s a dog; he’s just a warrior and we love him,” Spring Arbor coach Ryan Cottingham said of Durnell during a halftime interview during the game’s broadcast.
The Cougars led 44-35 at the halftime break on a Paul Marandet buzzer beater against three Oregon Tech defenders. Marandet is a graduate of Warsaw High School.
Durnell extended the Spring Arbor lead to 15 (55-40) with 16:37 left in the game with a spot up, quick hit three pointer from the top of the key. With a smile spread across his face, Durnell was captivating with his effort and energy as Oregon Tech attempted to rally and make a comeback. The Spring Arbor team made sure to keep each other focused against the Oregon Tech rally.
“What we have been telling each other all year long: stay together,” Durnell said of the Cougar conversation down the stretch of the game. “I really believe we were the most mentally tough and most unselfish team in the country. That is why we were so successful.”
As Oregon Tech started to send a second defender at Durnell, it opened up things for Marandet. With 6:35 to play, Durnell screened for Marandet that drew both defenders away for Marandet to get to the basket with some contact for a score. Oregon Tech got the game as close as four points in the final two minutes, constantly making Spring Arbor answer and control the tempo. Durnell grabbed a long offensive rebound with 1:04 remaining that helped the Cougars extend their lead to 78-72 at the free throw line.
The Cougars closed the game out at the line after being able to run significant time off the clock. Durnell added his final basket with nine seconds left as Cougars broke the Oregon Tech press to clinch the national title.
“I will never play with that specific group of teammates again so to be able to accomplish that with a group that worked so hard all year, it was special,” Durnell said.
Durnell was a catalyst during Spring Arbor’s postseason run in which they ended up facing three Indiana schools and beat the 10th, 11th and 12th ranked teams in the country. On Monday night, Spring Arbor beat Crossroads League rival Marian University in the national semifinal game, 66-50. It was their third win over the Knights this season. Durnell scored a team high 17 points in the win.
In the round of eight, Durnell and Marandet each scored 20 points in an 89-77 win over IU-East. They also beat the University of Jamestown (ND) and Indiana Tech in the National tournament with Durnell scoring 25 and 19 points respectively in those games. He was the single leading scorer or co-leading scorer for his team in each of those games.
Spring Arbor shared the Crossroads League title with Indiana Wesleyan but got upset in three overtimes by Mt. Vernon Nazarene in the second round of the Crossroads League tournament. This was Spring Arbor’s third ever trip to the NAIA Division II Tournament and their first title; it was the 17th appearance for Oregon Tech, who last won a national title in 2012.
In 2021, the NAIA will combined to one division in mens and womens basketball, which was discussed during the broadcast as well.