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Paul Bowker | | March 30, 2014

Hammork's long road to NCAA champion

  Chuck Hammork has 12 rebounds and six assists for the Mules.

EVANSVILLE, Ind. -- This is why Central Missouri's Chuck Hammork had skipped the fall and waited for one final eligible semester of college basketball.

With less than four minutes remaining in the NCAA Division II Men's Basketball Championship game Saturday, Hammork hit a 3-point shot that gave the Mules a five-point advantage against West Liberty. With less than a minute left, he ripped down one of his 12 rebounds.

Seconds after Hammork's final rebound of the game, confetti blasted into the air and Hammork and his teammates jumped into a celebratory pile at mid-court at the Ford Center.

The Mules had finished off an 84-77 victory. Champions, at last.

"It means a whole lot to me. I know this is something I can remember forever," Hammork said. "No one can take it away from me no matter what. I'm just so happy. I never won a championship. This is my first time ever playing in a championship game. It's just really wonderful."

The Mules had plenty of other heroes. Senior guard Daylen Robinson, who was named the tournament's most valuable player, scored 21 points on 8-of-15 shooting. Junior forward Dillon Deck had a double-double with 16 points and 10 rebounds.

The game had attracted so much interest among Central Missouri students and fans that four buses packed with students headed from Warrensburg to Evansville. Of the 4,742 at the Ford Center, more than half were Mules fans.

"I'm proud of these guys," said Central coach Kim Anderson, who won his first national title. "You saw that crowd. I'm proud to be part of this institution."

When it came time to discuss Hammork, Anderson turned emotional in the postgame press conference nearly an hour after all the nets were cut down and the last team photo had been taken. He brought his hands to his face. He looked down, attempting to hide his wetting eyes.

Hammork had not only missed the fall semester because he had only one basketball-eligible semester left, but Anderson nearly kicked him off the team at a mid-season tournament in Las Vegas last year. Here's a player who lived through Hurricane Katrina in the inner city of New Orleans with his mom and his younger sister, a guy whose family watched Saturday's game on TV.

"Here's the thing about ol' Chuck," Anderson said. "Chuck and I have been through a lot."

And that only made their relationship stronger, especially for Saturday's game when the Mules had to answer a nine-point deficit to the nation's highest-scoring team during the regular season.

"If I was going down, I was going down with Chuck," Anderson said.

Hammork wound up having one of the games of his life. His 12 rebounds were two more than anybody else. He had a team-high six assists. After missing four-of-five shots in the first half, he had to turn to other parts of his game.

"I told myself I wasn't shooting any more," Hammork said.

Assistant coach Nate Johnson had a different message.

"He told me, 'Chuck, you've worked so hard for this. Your shots are going to fall. Keep doing what you've been doing and keep grabbing rebounds,' " Hammork said. "With the team and the coaches giving me that much confidence, my confidence goes sky high."

It wasn't always that way.

Anderson was so upset with Hammork at a tournament in Las Vegas last year, Hammork's first season with the team as a junior, that Anderson sent him back to campus.

"I didn't think his attitude was very good toward me and toward our team," Anderson said. "I put him on the plane and sent him back home."

Hammork called Anderson while he was still in Vegas and apologized.

Anderson didn't dismiss him from the team, but he didn't allow Hammork to remain with the team in Las Vegas.

"I think that was the defining moment for him," Anderson said. "I was going to take the ball away from him. He asked me to give him another chance. And I did."

Hammork turned around so quickly that he only missed three games. Then came the decision for 2013-14. He had only one eligible semester remaining. He chose the second semester, meaning that during the fall he stayed in New Orleans to work out. He was not allowed, per NCAA rules, to practice or even do individual workouts at Central Missouri.

One morning at precisely 2:14 a.m., Anderson was woken up at home by a text message on his cell phone. It was Hammork. The message was to inform Anderson that he was running. At two in the morning.

"I give a lot of credit to my friends back at home," Hammork said. "A lot of them helped me. They gave me confidence and worked out with me.

They made sure I was running every morning, going to the gym even when I didn't want to."

So when Hammork played such a key role in leading Central Missouri to its second basketball national title Saturday, Anderson was among the most happy. The dark days of Vegas were a distant memory now.

"He's been unbelievable since he came back," Anderson said. "He's grown up. He's matured. As a player, but more so as a person and a leader."