Small Schools get shot on Final Four's big stage
When it was announced the Division II and Division III national championships will be played during Final Four weekend as part of the NCAA's 75th anniversary celebration, Aaron Toomey, Willy Workman and Peter Kaasila were exactly where you'd expect them to be.
The three starters for Amherst were in the library.
''I remember in that moment, we all heard that and we kind of went nuts,'' Workman said with a big smile. ''No one got any work done. We were just thinking about it, coming down to Atlanta and daydreaming about that, and ever since then we've been on a mission.''
Their mission will come to an end on Sunday, when the Lord Jeffs (29-2) play Mary Hardin-Baylor (27-5) for the D-III title at Philips Arena, not far from the Georgia Dome, where Wichita State, Louisville, Michigan and Syracuse played in the Final Four on Saturday night.
Drury (30-4) meets Metropolitan State (32-2) for the D-II championship.
Amherst is among the nation's top liberal arts colleges, its academic standards among the toughest in the country. So it was less of an upset that the Lord Jeffs made it to Atlanta than three of their best players were camping out in the library last spring.
''We're a really close group of guys,'' said guard Allen Williamson, who claims he was in the library, too - just on a different floor - when that impromptu party took place. ''All of us were on board with this, and we thought we had something special from the beginning.''
It turned out the beginning wasn't so good for the 2007 national champs, who lost two of three during a miserable stretch in December. But after a clear-the-air meeting between seniors and coach David Hixon, the Lord Jeffs responded by winning their last 23 straight games.
''We talked about where our team was going, and none of us really like the direction we were headed,'' said Toomey, a junior guard and the National Association of Basketball Coaches' player of the year for Division III. ''We came together and decided to play our hearts out.''
Mary Hardin-Baylor will be chasing its first national championship on Sunday.
The Crusaders, who lost to Concordia (Texas) in their conference title game, earned a bit of revenge in their NCAA tournament opener. They then came back to beat Whitworth, St. Mary's and St. Thomas - ranked No. 1 in the nation much of the season - to reach the championship game.
''It's definitely given us confidence, knowing we can come back like that,'' said senior guard Cory Meals, who's already helped Mary Hardin-Baylor set a school record for wins in a season.
''It gives me confidence knowing my team, when we get down, we're not just going to give up, but they're going to keep fighting `til the end, which is what we did in all those wins.''
Drury will also be chasing its first national championship in Division II when the Panthers, winners of 22 straight, face Metro State as part of the championship doubleheader.
Drury is led by Alex Hall, who's averaging better than 20 points per game in the postseason, and has eight consecutive wins over teams that were ranked in the Top 25 this season. Among them were Findlay, Bellarmine and Western Washington, each of whom has won recent national titles.
''When we started this journey, it was all about, `Hey, let's enjoy it, let's do what we do and let's see where it goes,''' Panthers coach Steve Hesser said. ''And we're still here.''
The small school from Springfield, Mo., is sending five busloads of students to Atlanta.
''This is a great feeling,'' Hall said. ''We have a great opportunity. That's what we worked hard for all year, since day one. And it's just a dream come true, that's the only way to put it.''
While the Panthers are newcomers to the national stage, Metro State has been here before.
The school from Denver won national titles in 2000 and 2002 under current Charlotte Bobcats coach Mike Dunlap, and is now back in the spotlight under Derrick Clark, who was an assistant on those title teams and took over three years ago after a stint as an assistant at Colorado.
''The preparation for this kind of game right here, you can only appreciate being a head coach,'' Clark said. ''I understand the process a lot better than I did at that time.''
The Roadrunners won 22 straight to start the season, lost two of three during a poor stretch in late February and early March, but have won nine in a row heading into the title game.
''Everyone's playing hard together,'' said Nicholas Kay, one of two Australians in the starting lineup. ''Knowing the seniors only have one more game, and this could be the last game they ever play, so everyone wants to make the most of it this year.''