Amherst College men's hoop seeks second national title

Last modified: Wednesday, April 24, 2013
Dave Hixon hasn’t missed an NCAA Division I championship game in 36 years. For him, the game’s festive atmosphere — the hoopla, as he calls it — is a celebration of basketball that is best experienced in person.

But when the Amherst College men’s basketball coach arrived with his team in Georgia Thursday for the 75th anniversary celebration of March Madness, he had a more pressing championship game on his mind — his own.

For the third time in six years, Hixon has guided the Lord Jeffs (29-2) to an NCAA Division III championship appearance. The program won in 2007 and lost in 2008. Amherst plays the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor at 12:30 p.m. at Philips Arena in Atlanta on Sunday. The game will be aired nationally on CBS Sports Network.

Because of some unusual scheduling quirks as a result of the 75th anniversary celebration, the Jeffs have been off for two weeks since their 52-44 win over North Central College in the semifinals on March 23. Hixon isn’t concerned about any “rest vs. rust” potential for his team, however, as Amherst came out firing after sitting through a two-week bye in the opening round of the tournament.

“We learned a lot from last time,” Hixon said. “We were pretty much used to playing back-to-back games all year long until we got into the NCAAs, then all of a sudden it was like, two weeks off.”

Jeffs point guard Aaron Toomey, who on Monday was named the National Association of Basketball Coaches Division III Player of the Year, said the additional time off should be an advantage.

“I think for us it is,” he said. “We have several guys that have been banged up and injured, so this extra week here gives us a little more time to rest and get our bodies 100 percent before we go down to Atlanta.”

Toomey played especially well with the extra rest, scoring game-highs of 25 points after the two-week bye and after the week off following Amherst’s second-round win.

Along with Toomey, senior forwards Allen Williamson and Willy Workman have played critical roles in the Jeffs’ tournament run, which has come as part of a larger streak of 23 consecutive victories dating back to Dec. 8. Williamson, in particular, has impressed his coach with the way he’s elevated his game in the pressure-packed tournament atmosphere.

“The light bulb come on at the perfect time,” Hixon said. “And he’s taken a lot of pride in that. He’s as important as anybody in this whole equation. He’s been as important in the last 10 games as anybody. He’s been unbelievable.”

Williamson should again play a crucial role against the Crusaders (27-5) on Sunday, as he and the Amherst frontcourt will be tasked with containing Kitrick Bell, a D3hoops.com all-American honorable mention.

Bell led the American Southwest Conference in rebounding with 10.1 per game while averaging 12.3 points.

“He’s an unbelievable athlete,” Hixon said. “(Bell is) a great rebounder, but Allen, down in Virginia (against North Central and Cabrini College), rebounded like nobody else. I mean, he was unbelievable.”

The Jeffs have also emphasized ball control and smart passing, as Mary Hardin-Baylor of Belton, Texas, has made a name for itself as a team that likes to jump passing lanes and take defensive risks.

“There are guys coming from all directions trying to take passes or pick your pocket,” Toomey said. “So, personally, I just have to see the whole floor, see where they’re gonna gamble and go for steals.”

Hixon said the Crusaders’ risk-taking should translate into some favorable scoring opportunities for a group of Jeffs shooters that shot 38.9 percent on 3-point attempts during the regular season.

And when its 3-pointers are falling, Amherst is a tough team to beat.