Following back-to-back losses, Amherst College men's basketball comes together for national title run

Last modified: Friday, April 19, 2013
In early December, Amherst College men’s basketball coach David Hixon wasn’t sure where his team was heading.

Though talented, the Lord Jeffs were reeling after losses to Springfield College and Babson College, and it appeared their season was stuck in neutral. After battling through injuries, the team had showed flashes of the greatness that would eventually propel it to Sunday’s NCAA Division III national championship game against the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor. But there was something missing.

Amherst needed a spark.

“It all seemed to happen when they started to yell at each other,” Hixon said of his players. “Before we lost to Babson, guys weren’t saying anything to each other. And (then) guys started to challenge each other. When we lost that (game), guys started pointing the finger at other guys saying, ‘Are you with us or are you not with us? Because we’re going somewhere.’”

The Jeffs haven’t lost a game since, matching their program record of 23 consecutive victories set during the 2006-07 season — the same year Amherst took home its first national title.

Two days after the loss to the Babson, the Jeffs responded with a 12-point win over against Brandeis University and “looked like a very good team while doing it,” Hixon said, something he thought helped set a positive tone as they launched into their winning streak.

That display of internal leadership — which Hixon believes is just as crucial to success as talent — has proven to be one of the driving forces behind Amherst’s run to the national championship game. Through self-policing, he said, the players grew closer as teammates and friends, something that’s also improved their play on the court.

“This group, I think they put themselves a little bit above they’re talent,” he said. “I think they’re talented, but I think they’re playing a little bit above where their talent is because of the relationship that they’ve built with each other, the way they challenge each other, the way they support each other. There’s an unbelievable chemistry going on.”

Senior captain Willy Workman, one of the main vocal proponents behind that early season turnaround, agreed.

“That’s what it takes sometimes,” the Northampton native said. “It’s part of being a leader, it’s not all fun and games. Being a captain is a gritty business. Sometimes you have to do the things that aren’t pleasant.”

Amherst’s opportunities for character growth didn’t stop after the Brandeis win. Apart from beating rival Williams College three times, Hixon pointed to a stolen 79-77 win on the road against a tough Hamilton College team that was “basically already in the loss column” and a 104-101 triple-overtime slugfest at Middlebury College on Feb. 12 that helped harden the team and shape its fate.

Slowly, the early doubt about the team’s championship chances faded. With the season wearing down and the postseason coming into focus, coaches and players began to narrow in on the challenge facing them.

“(When) we started the year, we really weren’t sure. We thought we had some talent, but we weren’t sure,” Hixon said. “Then when it got down to about seven games (left in the season) people started to count and said ‘Hey, this is a short season now.’”

With the start of the NESCAC tournament in mid-February, the Jeffs’ coaching staff further distilled the importance of their goals, coining a new phrase that is now printed on T-shirts distributed to the team: Respect the Mission.

“‘Respect the Mission’ is something that coach has been preaching since the postseason began,” senior forward and captain Allen Williamson said. “Just kind of a notice to us to keep our heads focused, stay in the right place mentally and really respect that we’re on a journey. It’s really all of us involved, not just players. It’s all the coaches and everyone who supports Amherst basketball.”

Amherst is relaxed and confident heading into its 12:30 p.m. matchup with the Crusaders in Atlanta on Sunday, thanks in large part to the tests the team faced months ago.

And the final destination has never been clearer.

“At the beginning of the year we looked up on that wall, saw there was a little extra space there in the middle (for another championship banner),” junior point guard Aaron Toomey said. “And that was the goal since the beginning, so it’d be incredibly special to go out there and accomplish our goal from what it was at the beginning of the season.”