It didn’t take long for St. Ambrose seniors Mike Kennedy and Chris Donnelly to understand what Fighting Bees coaches saw in each other as they were recruited.
The pair first met on the court in the summer of 2008 as opponents in an Illinois Basketball Coaches Association all-star game.
“He was hard to guard,” Donnelly said of his future teammate. “As he’s gotten bigger and stronger, that’s only made it more of a challenge because he can beat you inside and out. He’s a handful.”
Kennedy quickly discovered the same.
“He was a skinny guy, but I found out right away that he could move, pretty slippery,” Kennedy said. “I’m glad he’s on my team.”
The pair of combined to create all sorts of headaches for Fighting Bees opponents throughout collegiate careers which will end in the NAIA Division II national tournament, where St. Ambrose faces Marian in a 4 p.m. opening-round game on Wednesday.
Kennedy ranks third on the St. Ambrose career scoring and rebounding charts, totaling 2,246 points and 943 rebounds while starting in all but one of the 127 games he has played over the last four seasons.
Donnelly currently sits 19th on the Bees’ career scoring list, is 15th in assists and has more blocks than any player since the school began charting the statistic. He enters the national tourney with 1,326 career points.
“Donnelly is the Robin to Kennedy’s Batman,” Iowa Wesleyan coach Jess Settles said. “They complement each other so well on the court. You can tell they’ve played together for a long time, that they can sense where each other is on the floor and when you have that type of chemistry, it’s something special.”
St. Ambrose coach Ray Shovlain appreciates that more each day.
“They’ll make a no-look pass to one another and it’s like, did I just see that? Then you watch the tape and it’s still impressive,” Shovlain said. “They know each other so well and it’s been great to watch both of those guys develop. They are such good leaders and work hard to involve everybody in the game. The growth of their assist numbers show that.”
Kennedy, a 6-foot-6, 220-pound forward from Evergreen Park, Ill., is the two-time player of the year in the Midwest Collegiate Conference while Donnelly, a 6-5, 190-pound forward from Peoria, Ill., has joined him on the all-conference team the past two seasons.
In addition to providing strength around the basket, the pair has combined to knock down 55 3-point shots as well to add to the defensive concerns of opponents.
Shovlain views the improvements in their game as a byproduct of the work they have put into it.
Kennedy’s additional strength has allowed his rebounding numbers to steadily increase to a career-best average of 8.8 this season, while Donnelly has developed his shot-swatting skills to the point where he ranks fourth nationally with an average of 2.2 blocks per game.
“They are both exceptional players and their skills complement each other really well,” Shovlain said. “They’ve had a lot to do with the success we’ve had around here lately and it’s pretty fitting that their college careers will wrap up in the national tourney.”
Get breaking news sent instantly to your inbox
The pair has helped the Fighting Bees go from an 11-19 record during their freshmen season to 18-13 as sophomores and 23-9 and 25-8 over the past two seasons. St. Ambrose will take a 15-game winning streak into its NAIA tourney opener.
“We probably should have gotten to the nationals a year ago and the disappointment of not getting that done has been motivation this season,” said Kennedy, a marketing major. “We’ve been building toward this for a long time, getting better each year, becoming a better team.”
That work has included a few tough lessons along the way.
St. Ambrose has not lost since dropping consecutive games to Grand View and Mount Mercy in early January.
“Those games probably helped us in the long run. They forced us all to work together to turn things around and we got that done. It’s given us a lot of momentum to take into nationals,” said Donnelly, an academic all-American and industrial engineering major who will begin work in process engineer training for HNI in Muscatine, Iowa, once he graduates in May.
In the national tournament, the Fighting Bees expect to continue to do what they have done all season.
“We’re going there with the idea that we’re going to play good team basketball,” Donnelly said. “We have a lot of guys who can lead this team. It isn’t just Mike and myself. It’s everybody and that can give people big problems on defense. We don’t mind that at all. We’ve won 15 straight playing that way and we’re going there with the mindset that we aren’t done yet.”
St. Ambrose left Monday for the tournament site, practicing in the St. Louis area on its way to southwest Missouri.
“This is what we’ve been working for. We felt all along that we had the ability to get to nationals and I can’t think of a better place for our college careers to end,” Kennedy said. “This is what it’s all about and we want to go out on top.”