By John Bohnenkamp
Roman Penn and ShanQuan Hemphill are hurt, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t still a presence for the Drake basketball team.
Joseph Yesufu hears them.
Penn is out for the rest of the season with a left foot injury that required surgery. Hemphill hopes to be back for the postseason as he recovers from his foot surgery.
They haven’t stopped talking, especially to Yesufu. They have confidence in him, he said.
“They expect better out of me,” Yesufu said.
The Bulldogs got the best out of Yesufu in Saturday’s Missouri Valley Conference semifinal against Missouri State.
Yesufu scored 25 points, the last two coming on his layup with 2.5 seconds left, as the Bulldogs won, 71-69.
Drake (25-3), the second seed, advanced to Sunday’s championship game against top seed Loyola. The winner gets the Valley’s automatic bid into the NCAA tournament, the loser waits for an at-large call, although the Ramblers might have a little better case than the Bulldogs.
That’s why Drake’s win was so important on Saturday, even if the Bulldogs tried for downplay it.
“It was more just wanting to go out and win, so we can advance and continue to play, try to win a championship tomorrow,” Drake coach Darian DeVries said.
“We’re not really worried about that,” Yesufu said of the Bulldogs’ postseason chances. “We’re focused on Loyola. Whatever happens, happens.”
Yesufu’s basket, a drive through two Missouri State defenders, finished a game that had 16 lead changes and nine ties.
Yesufu said there were plenty of options on the final play, but he thought he could get to the basket.
“Probably the biggest shot of my life,” Yesufu said.
“Coach knew Joe was going,” Drake forward Tremell Murphy said. “He gave him the green light, and Joe scored it. We all had faith in him.”
It’s a faith that Penn and Hemphill have had in Yesufu. He said Penn has been especially vocal in his support.
“He believes in me sometimes more than I believe in myself,” Yesufu said.
The Bulldogs were the last team to get to play on the Enterprise Center court in St. Louis. They were scheduled to play Northern Iowa in Friday’s quarterfinal, but advanced when the Panthers couldn’t play because of a positive COVID-19 test within the program after their win on Thursday.
“We were ready for it,” said Murphy, who scored 20 points on Saturday. “We were ready to get it on.”
“In a way, I was kind of upset, because I got really locked in,” Yesufu said.
Twenty-two hours later, the Bulldogs got to play, and they’re still playing.
Drake went just seven deep in the game. Yesufu and Garrett Sturtz played all 40 minutes.
Saturday night would be all about rest. Sunday would be a chance to make a statement.
“There’s pressure every game,” Murphy said. “Tomorrow, it’s going to be a big game.”
Yesufu thought about Penn and Hemphill. The motivation, he said, is now for them.
“We’re trying to bring it home for them,” he said.
Photo: Drake’s Joseph Yesufu drives for his game-winning layup in Saturday’s Missouri Valley Conference tournament semifinal win over Missouri State. (Photo courtesy of the Missouri Valley Conference)