By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
ANDERSON, Ind. —
It’s hard to believe it’s been 19 years since former Highland star Linc Darner and his Purdue teammates lost against Duke in Knoxville, Tenn., with a trip to the NCAA tournament’s Final Four on the line.
Darner is dreaming of a trip to Final Four weekend again this year in Atlanta. But the circumstances are entirely different.
For the past seven years, Darner has been the men’s basketball head coach at Div. II Florida Southern in Lakeland, Fla. Under his guidance, the Moccasins have won two straight Sunshine State Conference championships and four league titles overall.
A win tonight in the South Regional finals of the NCAA tournament would send the Mocs to the Elite Eight in Louisville. With two more wins there, Florida Southern would head to Atlanta to play for the national championship.
While the Div. I teams will contest the national semifinals April 6 and the national title game April 8 at the Georgia Dome, the Div. II finalists will compete at the NBA Hawks’ Philips Arena for their own national crown on April 7.
“We’ve got a long ways to go to get there,” Darner said Monday during a cellphone interview.
That’s been the Mocs’ goal all season. The team — which features a pair of seniors with Madison County ties in Pendleton Heights’ Jay Hubble and Frankton’s Jon Gardner — is ranked eighth in the country and enters tonight’s game against No. 9 Alabama-Huntsville (25-5) with a 26-5 overall record.
Florida Southern caught fire with a nine-game winning streak from Jan. 12 to Feb. 9 that included seven straight contests in which the team scored at least 90 points. The Mocs cooled off a bit before beginning play in the SSC tournament March 8.
Now, Darner said, the team is peaking again.
“We’ve had an unbelievable season,” he said.
Florida Southern fell behind Rollins — and assistant coach Brad Ash, another former Scot — 20-4 at the start of the conference championship game and overcame a nine-point second-half deficit to win 72-66 and earn the right to host an NCAA regional.
The Mocs’ South Regional was the only one in the country in which all eight teams had been ranked at some point in the season. All four semifinalists were teams that held current rankings, another fact that separated this regional from its peers.
Florida Southern opened play with a 94-80 victory against North Alabama on Saturday then celebrated St. Patrick’s Day with an 84-65 demolition of 17th-ranked Saint Leo.
The Lions (22-8, 12-4 SSC) shared the regular season conference title with the Mocs but trailed by as many as 25 points during their postseason battle.
“I was surprised to have that big a lead against a team as good as they are,” Darner said.
The coach is expecting nothing to come easily in tonight’s regional final against Alabama-Huntsville.
The Chargers have appeared in the Elite Eight in each of the past two seasons, and all but one player on their roster has been a part of at least one of those postseason runs.
“They’re a very experienced team,” Darner said.
Alabama-Huntsville runs a Princeton-style offense, predicated on shooting 3-pointers and creating lay-ups with backdoor cuts. Darner said the Mocs will need to run the same style of defense they’ve showcased all season to counter.
“We’ve got to get up and pressure them (on the perimeter) and try to wear them down,” he said.
Tonight’s winner will advance to Louisville’s Freedom Hall on March 28 to begin play in the Elite Eight.
Darner’s hoping his family in the area, and fans from Pendleton Heights and Frankton, will be able to make the trip over to Kentucky to support the Mocs.
“It would be nice if we got there,” he said. “It would be great if people in that area could come down and support us.”
Darner is extremely happy at Florida Southern, where he’s garnered a reputation as one of the best Div. II coaches in the nation. But he could draw interest later this spring from schools with Div. I openings.
Darner laughed off the idea of such courtships, however, at least for the time being.
“I’m only worrying about one game,” he said. “That’s Alabama-Huntsville right now.”