The dream that started in a school library months ago and continued with a “bucket list” request came to fruition on Sunday for Amherst’s men’s basketball team.
Three of the Lord Jeffs’ key players were studying on campus when they learned that the Division III championship game, normally played in Salem, Va., was going to be played at Philips Arena, home of the NBA’s Hawks, as part of the celebration of the 75th anniversary of the NCAA tournament.
“When you are a kid growing up, the only thing you want to do as a basketball player is play in the NBA,” Amherst’s Willy Workman said. “So when I heard it was going to be played in Atlanta, the Championship game and it was going to be at Philips Arena, I was overjoyed and we set our minds that we were going to here and play in this arena.”
Behind Allen Williamson’s 18 points and Workman’s 14 points and 10 rebounds, Amherst fulfilled that dream, defeating Mary Hardin-Baylor 87-70 to win its second national championship in six years and end the season with a school-record 24 consecutive victories.
The game featured all of the pomp of what will happen on Monday when the Division I national championship game is staged between Michigan and Louisville at the Georgia Dome, even if the Philips Arena stage is slightly smaller.
Blue and white streamers fell to the floor as the Lord Jeff’s players slapped on white hats scripted with national championship and white T-shirts bearing a similar message.
The players mugged for the CBS camera crew that broadcast the game as Mary Hardin-Baylor’s fans, supporting their team to the end, chanted their school’s initials back and forth across the arena.
It was the culmination of dreams for three Amherst seniors, who twice fought off Crusaders’ comebacks that cut their lead to four in the second half. Workman, a senior, thwarted the first comeback with a jumper early in the second half. Aaron Toomey, a junior and the Division III national player of the year, stopped the second with a 3-pointer a few minutes later. Williamson punctuated the stops with a block followed by a layup with 15:06 left that pushed the Lord Jeffs’ lead back to nine.
“I feel like my whole career kind of is the pinnacle of everything, every suicide we’ve run, every time I’ve taken free throws after practice, every time I’ve worked in my basement working on my (ballhandling), I feel it’s all led up to today and I’m glad it all ended up this way, great way to finish up a career,” Williamson said.
But the dream isn’t quite over for coach Dave Hixon and his dad, Wil. They planned on getting in a car Sunday and driving to Augusta National to watch Monday’s Masters practice round. It was a “bucket list” request Wil, 84, made to his son months ago. They were going win or lose on Sunday, but a victory, the 693rd in Dave’s 36-year career at Amherst, will make the trip that much sweeter.
“It’s been a special relationship that we have had all the way through so I know, again, I think this would be my father’s first wish,” Dave said. “l’m probably the other way around, taking care of him is my first wish.”
Waiting outside the Amherst locker room on Sunday, Wil said he couldn’t decide which event he was more excited about: his son’s second national title, or getting to walk “Amen Corner” on Monday for the first time.
“The thought of him taking me is great, but the national championship is great too,” said Wil, wearing a gray and purple Amherst sweatshirt. “I have a hard time deciding. To me, if they have a golf course in heaven, it would Augusta National. But a second national championship is great. Both of them, I’ll tell you, I’m enjoying.”
Though his team lost, Mary Hardin-Baylor coach Ken DeWeese offered his own take on wishes on Sunday.
He said if the NCAA doesn’t continue scheduling the Division II and Division III championship games alongside the Division I title game, the organization is doing its student-athletes a disservice.
“The experience these guys have had, the way the NCAA people and the city of Atlanta have treated us, it is something that each team should have an opportunity to aspire to get to, regardless of where the Final Four is,” DeWeese said.
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