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The D2 Junior College National Tournament invites 16 teams throughout the country of 118 teams.  Returning to the National Tournament is South Suburban College out of South Holland, Illinois.  South Suburban College lost in the National semi-finals to Triton 82-77 last season.  It was the 7th trip to Nationals in 10 years, South Suburban has never won the title.

Returning to the National Tournament for a school with this much success, shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone except few know the backstory on how South Suburban College was able to advance despite being handed 11 losses in mid-January due to the use of an ineligible player.

They are the team that wasn’t supposed to be in Danville but they are there.  They haven’t lost but no one wants them to win the national title.

The controversy behind the season was caused by claims of use of an ineligible player.

On January 10th, South Suburban College hosted Parkland College, a battle of two top-ten ranked teams.  #1 South Suburban won the game 74-61.  The next day, the Parkland Athletic Director contacted  South Suburban College about a player on South Suburban’s roster that played two games for Parkland for a total of five minutes, three years ago.

Upon the player’s enrollment in South Suburban College, the staff at South Suburban College contacted Coach Anthony Figueroa of Parkland College.  Coach Figueroa reportedly described the player as one who only played in scrimmage games before being removed from the team for a violation of team rules.

On South Suburban College’s eligibility form, the player asserted that he did not play for Parkland in an official game.  South Suburban College accepted the player and allowed him to be a part of the team. In 11 games, he averaged 10 minutes a game,  three points, one rebound and one assist. He was the team’s, 12th man.

South Suburban self-reported the potential violation and was forced to forfeit any games the player appeared.  On January 14th instead of 18-0 and #1 in the country, South Suburban College was 7-11.

“We approached it with the team, we met and let the players air their feelings”, explained South Suburban Head Coach, John Pigatti.  “They were very upset about it.  My approach (with them) was that in life, things happen that aren’t fair and you aren’t going to be happy with some of what happens but you can’t stop the world.  It continues to go on – just like our season.  Every game is now a playoff game, we can not afford to lose.”

The team has responded.

In the regional semifinals, with the game tied, 6’2″ point guard Armon Benford drove the basket off a sideline out of bounds play and was fouled, Benford went to the line and hit both free throws to cement a 63-61 victory over Moraine Valley.  Benford scored 20 points in the semi-finals but none bigger than the two free throws the clinched the win.

“The play got messed up, Shaq gave me the ball on the top of the key” describes Benford. “I knew I had to get to the rim and make a play. I got hit in the back and there was a player underneath me trying to take a charge, but he was on the line. I had just missed a free throw attempt on the offensive possession prior, so I knew I had to hit these.”.

Benford came to South Suburban College from John A Logan College in Carterville, Illinois.  He was looking for a school and came to a South Suburban open gym in August.  Now they are on the verge of making history.

With days winding down, Benford isn’t focused on what’s next for his future.  He is committed to this team and this season.  When the team found out about the forfeits, Benford saw it as an opportunity to come together.  “I knew we were undefeated on the court – we just needed to get everything done.”

South Suburban advanced to the regional final to face Carl Sandburg College.  South Suburban beat Carl Sandburg College in the regional final 81-69.

Rasheide Bell, 6’3″, shooting guard scored 26 points, 8 rebounds, 8 assists and 5 steals to lead South Suburban to a 81-69 victory.  Bell was named MVP of the regional tournament and Co-Player-of-the -Year in the region.  For Bell this was a little redemption after sitting behind a star player a season ago.

“As a freshman, I averaged about 2 points a game”, said Bell.  “I had thoughts in my mind about leaving but I recognized I would get more opportunity this season.  The season is going great, we gelled together, stayed the course and followed coach’s playbook”.

Bell is committed to one goal, winning the National Championship.  “Northern Illinois, Kentucky Wesleyan, UMKC and Wisconsin-Parkside all have been in and offered scholarships- BUT the only thing I care about right now is winning the National Championship.”

In the regional final, 6’4″ wing Anthony Harris contributed 14 points and 10 rebounds in route to being named to the all-tournament team.  He is the only two-year starter in the program.

“Two years ago, Coach Pigatti recruited me from my high school and offered me – a few weeks later I signed”, recalls Harris.

Last season he averaged 10 points and 8 rebounds.  Had 16 double-doubles.

“(When last season ended) Being one game away from the National Championship, I wanted to win the National title”, explains Harris.  “When I found out that they took 11 games away, I was mad.  Coach preached we needed to stay focus and win.  I just wanted to do what it took to help my team win.”

Now standing as the #2 seed in the National tournament, South Suburban College will face Dakota County Tech of Minnesota (14-14) on Tuesday, March 21 at 1 pm.  South Suburban College is standing at 21-11 -but has yet to lose on the court this season.  Any loss ends their season and keeps them from winning the National title which has alluded this program.

Coach John Pigatti now has brought the Bulldogs to their 8th national tournament in 11 years, an unprecedented feat in this era.   He is quick to point out that this accomplishment isn’t about him.

“I give the kids a lot of credit battling so much adversity this season”, said Pigatti.  “Outside of the forfeits, they have fought through five deaths and serious illnesses affecting their families.  They have done a great job staying together through it all.  Winning four games against the best teams in the country won’t be easy.  These kids have shown a lot of grit and heart all year, I don’t expect anything less down in Danville.”

In case you didn’t have any dog in the fight to root for – now you do!

Parent, journalist, adjunct professor, host-That Bracket Show on SB Nation Radio and former Five-Star Camp CEO. Principal of Klein Sports and Education Consulting. Current clients include; The Highlands Current, Kinexon Sports, Basketball Travelers, and Blue Star Sports Technology. Current member of the USA Basketball Working Group on Youth Development Member: USA Basketball Writers Association, AIPS, AP Sports Editors, NABC and Society of Professional Journalists

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