One to remember
Amherst, Mary Hardin-Baylor like new championship format
ATLANTA -- Sure, said Thomas Orr of Mary Hardin-Baylor, he'd played in an honest-to-goodness NBA arena before Sunday's NCAA Division III men's basketball finale.
Actually, he's played in places like Philips Arena plenty of times. But then, he added with a grin that spread across his face, "I played it on a video game, so I think I got it. I'm a little familiar with the gym."
Orr's light-hearted response before the DIII men's basketball championship game was refreshing, just as it was so cool to watch as Mary Hardin-Baylor and Amherst's student-athletes were introduced at the Georgia Dome during Saturday night's Division I semifinal between Syracuse and Michigan. Some actually had mouths agape as they took in their surroundings, staring in wonder at it all.
Many of the players taped the whole experience on their smart phones. Would any of them ever again stand on a basketball court like this, in front more than 71,000 fans? The best moment, though, took place when Amherst junior guard Aaron Toomey opened his team warmup jacket to reveal a Syracuse jersey.
Shown on the mammoth hi-definition screens hanging over the Georgia Dome court, Toomey's show elicited a tremendous roar from the crowd. The reactions came in a mixture of cheers from the Orange faithful and good-natured boos from Michigan's fans, but that was seemed fine with Toomey, who smiled through it all.
Turns out, the teams hadn't seen anything yet. On Sunday at Philips Arena, the atmosphere for player introductions before the DIII title game itself was positively electric, complete with a darkened arena and a spotlight on each as his name was announced. It's the kind of thing that happens before every game in a lot of places, but not for these guys.
Amherst won the national championship with a convincing 87-70 victory against Mary Hardin-Baylor.
"This is what you dream of out in the driveway," Toomey said. "You dream of hitting the big shot in the NBA, but this is as close as we're going to get. It was really special to play out there [Sunday]."
So … what exactly was up with the Syracuse jersey? Actually, there's a family connection there -- Toomey's father, Kevin, attended the upstate-New York school.
"I've been a Syracuse fan because of him for a long time," Toomey said. "I figured if I was out there, why not get some boos and a little bit of cheers at the same time. I had to do it. It was a once in a lifetime chance, I guess."
Senior forward Willy Workman had the same kind of childhood dreams that any basketball player has. Playing here, in this setting, made the national championship all the more special.
"Obviously, when you're a kid growing up, the only thing you want to do if you're a basketball player is play in the NBA," Workman admitted. "That's what I've wanted to do for as long as I can remember.
"So when I heard that we were going to be playing in Atlanta in the championship game, and it was going to be in Philips Arena, I was just overjoyed. The lights were bright. There were a lot of people there. Everybody was chanting this way or that way."
Here's the cool perspective that Amherst was able to generate. The game itself, basketball, was still the same.
"We knew the hoop was 10 feet tall," Workman continued. "The free-throw line was 15 feet, and we had each other. It's been about us all year long. We knew that if we just stuck together and played as five, that everything outside the court wouldn't matter."
There was, however, the very real chance of the players being overly in awe of the posh setting. Amherst head coach David Hixon tried to make sure that wasn't the case with his team.
"We knew who we were," Hixon began. "We'd won 23 in a row. We'd really crystalized identities -- individual and team. I kept saying, 'Guys, you don't need to do anything different, just be who you are. Being who you are, you're going to be confident in that.'
"We talked a lot about that, right up until the last talk before I sent them out on the court. I thought we were who we are [Sunday]. We didn't try to do anything special. We didn't try to do anything more. We just played basketball the way Amherst has been playing basketball the last 24 games."
Though his Crusaders came out on the short end of the score, Mary Hardin-Baylor head coach Ken DeWeese felt strongly about continuing to play for the DIII title in such locales. So much so, in fact, that after reporters in the postgame news conference had finished with their questions, DeWeese asked to get on his "soapbox."
"NCAA was great," he began. "If this format does not become permanent, we're not doing the service for the student-athletes in the Division II and Division III levels that we possibly can. This is the greatest atmosphere in the world. If we don't, I think we're slighting our student-athletes.
"The experiences these guys have had, the way the NCAA people and the city of Atlanta have treated us, it is something each team should have an opportunity to aspire to get to. For Division II and Division III in college basketball, this is the best thing that's ever happened."