HISTORIC PURSUIT: Belmont Abbey heads to Southeast Regional with high seeding and “target on our backs”

By Richard Walker

Belmont Abbey celebrates is 2021 Conference Carolinas basketball title last Sunday after winning 82-70 at Emmanuel in the championship game. [Abbeyathletics.com photo]
There’s a sense of accomplishment, a sense of excitement and an understanding that challenges lay ahead for Belmont Abbey College’s men’s basketball team as it begins the 2021 NCAA Division II Southeast Regional as the No. 1 seed this weekend.

“Being the No. 1 seed is a testament to our team and how hard they’ve worked this season,” Crusaders coach Dan Ficke said. “But it also means there’s a target on our backs and we know we’ll get everybody’s best shot.”

That’ll start on Sunday at 7:45 p.m. when the Abbey will meet either league rival Emmanuel for a sixth time this season or nearby rival Queens for the first time since last year in a regional semifinal.

Ficke and the Crusaders (18-4) are one of two teams with a bye in the regional being held in Harrogate, Tenn.; Host and No. 2 seed Lincoln Memorial (16-3) has the other bye.

No. 4 seed Emmanuel (15-6) faces No. 5 seed Queens on Saturday at 8:45 p.m. with the winner advancing to Sunday’s regional semifinal against the Abbey.

No. 3 seed Carson-Newman (11-5) faces No. 6 seed Tusculum (13-5) in Saturday’s first game at 6 p.m. with the winner playing Lincoln Memorial at 5 p.m. on Sunday.

The championship game is slated for 7 p.m. on Tuesday.

It’ll mark Belmont Abbey’s eighth invitation to the NCAA Division II tournament – and second in a row.

However, last year’s berth remains bittersweet as the entire tournament was cancelled just before it started due to the coronavirus pandemic.

It also meant the end of the school careers for two top players – 2,171-point career scorer DeQuan Abrom and 2020 Conference Carolinas defensive player of the year Romeao Ferguson; Abrom graduated and Ferguson chose to leave the Abbey for the opportunity to play at NCAA Division I Lipcomb.

Without those two players, Ficke had to rework a talented roster while navigating eight postponed or cancelled games earlier this season due to the coronavirus.

“Obviously last year we had two of the best players in school history,” Ficke said. “We were fortunate to have them. Without them, we had to develop into a team with more balance.”

The perfect example of that approach came last Sunday when the Crusaders won 82-70 at Emmanuel in the Conference Carolinas championship game when all nine of the Abbey players used scored eight or more points.

It also came in a rare comfortable victory for the Crusaders, who went 8-1 this season in one-possession games. The biggest win came in an exhibition victory at nearby NCAA Division I Charlotte 75-72 in overtime in January that doesn’t count in the Abbey’s overall record.

“Sean Halloran and Quest Aldridge have been our leaders but we’ve had different guys step up every night this season for us,” Ficke said.

Halloran, a junior guard, is averaging team-highs of 12.8 points and 3.8 assists per game in addition to 2.9 rebounds.

Aldridge, a sophomore guard, is averaging 12.1 points, 3.9 rebounds and 3.3 assists.

Other key contributors have been junior guard L.J. McCoy (11.2 points, 2.4 rebounds, 1.3 assists), sophomore forward Charles Solomon (9.4 points, 4.5 rebounds), freshman guard-forward Chandler Baker (9.1 points, 2.8 rebounds), sophomore guard Mario Lacy, Jr. (7.1 points, 5.8 rebounds), junior guard Nate Davis (5.7 points, 3.1 rebounds), freshman guard Prince Davies (4.8 points, 2.5 rebounds, 1.5 assists) and sophomore guard Malik Tucker (4.0 points, 4.1 rebounds).

“It’s surreal to be a No. 1 seed,” Ficke said. “And all of these guys deserve all sorts of credit for making it happen.”

The Abbey has previously played in the NCAA Division II tournament in 1959, 1960, 1961, 2002, 2003 and 2013. There were no seeded teams in the 1959, 1960 and 1961 tournaments and the Crusaders were seeded sixth in 2002, seventh in 2003 and eighth in 2013. The school’s best previous finish came in 1961 when legendary Abbey coach Al McGuire guided the team to a runner-up finish to Austin Peay.

The pairings for the NCAA Division II Southeast men’s basketball regional at Harrogate, Tenn.:

Saturday’s quarterfinals
BYES – #1 Belmont Abbey (18-4), #2 Lincoln Memorial (16-3)
#3 Carson-Newman (11-5) vs. #6 Tusculum (13-5), 6 p.m.
#4 Emmanuel (15-6) vs. #5 Queens (16-5), 8:45 p.m.

Sunday’s semifinals
Lincoln Memorial vs. Carson-Newman-Tusculum winner, 5 p.m.
Belmont Abbey vs. Emmanuel-Queens winner, 7:45 p.m.

Tuesday, March 16
Championship game, 7 p.m.