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Amherst men’s basketball advances to NCAA title game

GAZETTE FILE PHOTO
Coach Dave Hixon and the Amherst College men's basketball team will play in their third national championship game in seven seasons on April 7 against the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor. The Jeffs defeated North Central  in the NCAA Division III semifinals on Saturday.

GAZETTE FILE PHOTO Coach Dave Hixon and the Amherst College men's basketball team will play in their third national championship game in seven seasons on April 7 against the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor. The Jeffs defeated North Central in the NCAA Division III semifinals on Saturday. Purchase photo reprints »

SALEM, Va. — The Amherst College men’s basketball team had a charter flight home from Sunday morning after playing in the NCAA Division III semifinals. The Jeffs will need another one in two weeks, because they are going to the national championship game.

Allen Williamson had 17 points, 10 rebounds and his dunk with 34.6 seconds left in the game was the exclamation point on Amherst’s 52-44 victory over North Central in the Final Four at the Salem Civic Center on Saturday.

“It means so much to me and so much to the other captains, Pete (Kaasila) and Willy (Workman),” said Williamson. “It’s our fourth year here. It’s our last shot and what a big stage to do it in. We can go to Atlanta now and play in that huge arena on a big weekend. It really feels great, but it will take a little while to sink in.”

Amherst will play the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor on April 7 at Phillips Arena in Atlanta as part of the NCAA’s celebration of the 75th anniversary of the men’s national championship. The Crusaders upset No. 1 St. Thomas 74-67 in the first game of Saturday’s doubleheader.

The men’s Division II and III championship games will be played between the men’s Division I semifinals April 6 and the national championship game April 8.

It will be the Jeffs’ third national championship game in seven seasons, and coach Dave Hixon’s team is seeking its second title. Amherst beat Virginia Wesleyan to win the 2007 title but lost to Washington (Mo.) University in the 2008 final.

“The first thing we did when we gathered for our first practice (Nov. 1), we had the whole team look up at the wall and see the banner up there and then look to where there’s a space for another banner. We thought it might be nice,” Hixon said.

It was Williamson’s second consecutive double-double and third in the Jeffs’ four NCAA tournament games. Junior guard Aaron Toomey was the only other Amherst player in double figures with 10 points.

The stat sheet does not describe a very pretty game. The Jeffs shot 15-of-48 from the floor for 31.3 percent and were 4-of-14 from 3-point range.

The Cardinals’ numbers were even worse. North Central made only one of 14 shots from behind the arc and shot 16-for-56 (28.6 percent) from the floor.

“Obviously we didn’t play very well. I give Amherst credit,” said Cardinals coach Todd Raridon. “I think they did a nice job defensively. I thought we did a nice job defensively. We didn’t shoot the ball particularly well.”

Hixon said, “I think it was a real gut-check” game. “I think we’ve been winning games on mental toughness and tonight was a mental toughness game because we didn’t score for the first eight minutes (of the second half). It looked like the tide had changed.”

Amherst led 29-22 at halftime with neither team shooting better than 40 percent. The Jeffs went on a 12-2 run midway through the half to turn a 7-6 deficit into an 18-8 lead, and their defense held North Central to one basket over a nine-minute period.

The drought Hixon referred to in the second half was astonishing.

Amherst did not score a point until freshman Ben Pollack drained two free throws with 11 minutes, 2 seconds left in the game and did not make a basket until Toomey’s step-back 3-pointer one minute later which tied the game at 34.

The Jeffs went ahead for good a minute later. Vince Kmiec of the Cardinals threw up an air ball from outside the arc. Pollack, who had six rebounds, pulled down the board and started the offense going. He finished it when he caught a pass from David Kalema to score inside and put Amherst ahead 36-34.

Williamson put the finishing touches on this victory. North Central trailed 39-38 after Landon Gamble made one of two from the line. The Jeffs got the ball to Kalema, who penetrated and kicked the ball back to Williamson for a jumper from the left elbow that swished through.

Then with 34.6 seconds to play, Williams put the exclamation point on the victory. Pat Rourke of the Cardinals attempted a 3-pointer that would have made it a four-point game, but Williamson blocked the shot. He then threw down a thunderous dunk that got the Amherst faithful rocking.

“That was a great exclamation point,” Williamson said. “I had missed a couple of free throws and I was kind of upset about that. I wanted to make a play on defense.

“The block went to David and my eyes lit up when I saw the open court,” said Williamson, who finished the play and North Central’s championship dream.

It’s a dream that the Jeffs will get to think about for two more weeks.

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