ATLANTA – With every basket, the roar at one end of the court or the other got louder and louder.

The NCAA Division II Men’s Basketball Championship was up for grabs, and Drury and Metro State both wanted it. For most of the game, Metro State held the advantage, but Drury wasn’t going to go down without a fight.

And neither was its fans. Finally, when senior guard Alex Hall sank two free throws with just 22.8 seconds remaining in the game, the Panthers went on top 74-73.

And after a last-second scramble under the Metro State basket, where a tip, bounce or most anything could’ve went the other way, the game was over and the title was Drury’s.

“Wow,” said an exhausted Drury head coach Steve Hesser. “What a game. Metro’s very, very good. They really put pressure on you defensively because you’ve got to guard all five of them.”

Much of the first half was not pretty for Drury, and Hesser readily admitted that there came a time or two when he thought the game was getting out of hand.

“I thought they were the tougher basketball team in the first 20 minutes,” Hesser admitted. “We were having trouble getting matched up in transition. They were making 3s. We weren’t doing what we’ve done in the last month on offense. I thought we were taking some difficult shots. We were turning it over, as well.”

Before the half was over, though, the Panthers pulled back to within 12 points at 39-27. That might not seem like much, but Hesser was willing to take what he could get at that point.

During the second half, Drury outscored Metro State 47-34. A lesser coach might’ve taken credit for some Knute Rockne/Vince Lombardi-type rah-rah halftime locker room speech, but Hesser didn’t berate his charges. Far from it, actually. He said after the game that he didn’t even raise his voice. His instructions were this:

• We have 20 minutes left.

• Win, lose or draw, let’s do what we do. Sometimes it’s hard to do what you do because the other team’s trying to keep you from doing that. Just chip away and get back to being us.

• If we go down, let’s go down being us and let’s go down together.

The talk worked, however vociferous it might or might not have been. The last half, Drury outscored Metro State 47-34 and did just what Hesser had asked. They chipped away, slowly and steadily.

At the 13:29 mark of the second half, a 3-pointer by Lonnie Boga tied the game at 53. From there on out, it was a virtual slugfest. Metro State came right back after Drury, but couldn’t pull away like it had earlier.

Drury reacts after the final buzzer sounds.
NCAA Photos

Finally, Hall put the Panthers over the top for good with his clutch free throws. He’d been fouled by Metro State’s Brandon Jefferson, as Hall leaped to grab a rebound off teammate Cameron Adams’ missed free throw.

“We were all getting frustrated with them getting the offensive boards,” Hall said. “We’d look over at Coach, and his face was just beet red. We thought, ‘Aww, geez.’ So when that thing came off, I’m just thinking, ‘OK, it’s coming straight to me. I’ve got to get this.’ When I went up, he [Jefferson] came underneath me. The rest is history.”

The last few seconds ticked off the clock in a fury of sound and motion, and when the buzzer sounded with Drury on top, bedlam broke loose. As it did, Metro State head coach Derrick Clark gathered his team around him in front of their own bench.

What did he say? What words of wisdom could he share in such an emotional moment? Clark would not say, and he was adamant about not saying it.

“That’s a private moment,” Clark said firmly. “We can’t share that one. I’m sorry. That’s something we’ll take with us and file it away. That’s for us. Sorry.”

As hard as the loss was -- one player was all but sobbing as he entered the interview room -- Clark said that he would do everything he could to make sure the team got past the loss as quickly as possible.

“They shouldn’t be down when they leave that locker room,” Clark said. “The wounds are still open from this thing right here. It’s going to take a little time to heal, but they can’t walk out of that locker room and feel like this has been a big disappointment. Then, you’re taking away from the mission and enjoyment of this thing.

“We did some things that were unusual. We tried to be uncommon this year, to steal something from [former NFL head coach] Tony Dungy. We played for the national championship two hours ago. They can’t linger that disappointment. They’ve made some memories. Time will heal it. They’ll smile on this experience. Ain’t no disappointment in this, besides the obvious. Take this experience for what it is. It was big-time.”