ATLANTA (AP) — At the beginning of the season, Amherst coach David Hixon passed out a form that his players were supposed to fill out, with questions meant to make them think about who they were deep down inside.
Soul-searching questions, such as “What’s your biggest fear?”
When senior guard Willy Workman returned the form, Hixon could only laugh. His answer: “The guy at the factory will get my size wrong for my championship ring.”
Now Workman will get to confront that big fear.
He had 14 points and 10 rebounds on Sunday, and the Lord Jeffs used balanced scoring from across their deep and talented lineup to beat Mary Hardin-Baylor 87-80 and win the Division III national championship.
“There were a lot of people here,” Workman said, “people chanting this way and that way, but we knew the hoop was 10 feet tall, the free-throw line 15 feet, and we had each other.”
Allen Williamson scored 18 points, and Connor Green and national player of the year Aaron Toomey added 16 each, helping the Lord Jeffs (30-2) push their season-ending winning streak to a school-record 24 games, and match the Amherst record for victories in a season.
It was the Massachusetts school’s third trip to the title game. It won the title in 2007.
“It’s hard right now to even put into words,” Hixon said, “and I’ve been through this once before. It’s really hard, where this team came from and where it ended up.”
Thomas Orr had 24 points and 11 rebounds for Mary Hardin-Baylor (27-6), which has never won an NCAA team championship in any sport. Brian Todd added 17 points and James Allen had 15.
“We didn’t come here to just enjoy the festivities,” Orr said, “we came here to win a game, and we didn’t do that. It’s a good trip, but the ultimate goal wasn’t succeeded.”
The Division III title game is usually played in Salem, Va., but it was moved to Philips Arena this season as part of the NCAA’s 75th anniversary of March Madness.
The Division II title game was also being played just a short walk from the Georgia Dome, the site of Monday night’s Division I championship game between Louisville and Michigan.
“If we don’t make this is permanent thing, I think we’re doing a disservice, and slighting our student-athletes,” Mary Hardin-Baylor coach Ken DeWeese said. “It’s something each team should aspire to get to, regardless of where the Final Four is.”
The Lord Jeffs never trailed in the first half, getting easy jump shots with superior ball movement and scoring the first 10 points. They kept hitting from around the perimeter, too, and pushed their lead to 29-16 on a basket by Ben Pollack with about 10 minutes left.
That’s about when Toomey picked up his second foul, though, and the point guard spent the rest of the half on the bench next to Hixon. Without their leading scorer, the Lord Jeffs’ offense became stagnant, and Mary Hardin-Baylor crept back into the game.
Orr did most of the damage with 10 first-half points, including a thunderous dunk to finish off a fast break that left the rim, backboard and stanchion shaking back and forth.
Amherst led 38-30 at halftime, despite Toomey scoring three points on 1-for-5 shooting.
There was a brief interruption in play early in the second half when a bank of lights inside Philips Arena went out, and some fans started to yell, “Super Bowl!” — a reference, of course, to when the lights when out at the Superdome in New Orleans this past season.
“I figured right when they went out, people would notice and we’d stop and they’d stop the game, do something,” Toomey said. “It was kind of weird.”
The officials huddled at the first dead ball and, after speaking with arena officials and both head coaches, decided to press on with the second half in a slightly dimmer setting.
“They didn’t think they were going to get them back on,” Hixon said.
Mary Hardin-Baylor was undisturbed, closing within 43-39 on a basket by Brian Todd and a 3-pointer by the senior guard on the very next possession. But the Lord Jeffs settled down behind their brilliant backcourt, and they responded by slowly stretching their lead.
Highlighted by Williamson’s dunk, they used a 12-4 run to regain control, and a jumper by Williamson a few minutes later gave Amherst a 62-49 lead with 8 minutes to go.
The lights finally came back on in the closing minutes, just in time to shine brightly on the guys from Amherst, who lost two of three during a miserable stretch in December.
At that point in the season, the seniors met with Hixon for a regrouping session, and the Lord Jeffs were rarely challenged their next 24 games, capping off arguably the most remarkable season in school history by cutting down the nets in Atlanta.
“This is what you dream about when you’re a little kid, out in the driveway,” Toomey said later, the net hanging around his neck. “It was special to play out there today.”