ATLANTA — The smart kids from Amherst College pored over four game films of Mary Hardin-Baylor for two weeks. They delved into tendencies and dissected individual moves of their opponent for Sunday’s Division 3 national championship game. It was almost sinister, completely unfair, what they did with that knowledge.
The Amherst players called out the pet moves of the Hardin-Baylor players at the precise spot the Crusaders preferred. They had a remedy for Thomas Orr’s step-back moves and understood how to cut off the runs at the rim by Crusaders guard Brian Todd.
“You could hear them calling out our tendencies,” Orr said. He frowned.
“They had us scouted. Nine times out of 10 we don’t miss the shots we missed.”
Amherst’s game plan slowed down the most surprising team in the Division 3 tournament and the Lord Jeffs won the national championship, 87-70 over Mary Hardin-Baylor of Belton, Texas, at Philips Arena before about 7,000 fans.
The Lord Jeffs (30-2) finished the season on a 24-game winning streak. They won a national title in 2007 with the same record under coach David Hixon, who completed his 36th season at the school, but this championship had extra character. It was played in an NBA arena and coincided with the Division 1 championship being played at the nearby Georgia Dome on the 75th anniversary of the NCAA Tournament.
“Well, obviously when you’re a kid growing up, the only thing you want to do as a basketball player is play in the NBA, that’s what I wanted to do for as long as I can remember,” said senior guard Willy Workman. “So when I heard it was going to be played in Atlanta, and it was going to be at Philips Arena, I was overjoyed and we set our minds that we were going to get here and play in this arena.
“You know the lights are bright, there’s a lot of people there, everyone’s chanting this way that way, but we knew the hoop was 10 feet tall, the free throw was 15 feet.”
The Lord Jeffs, however, made the rim on the Hardin-Baylor side of the floor seem 11 feet high and just out of reach of the Crusaders. An unranked Cinderella that defeated three teams in the top 15 to get to the final, Hardin-Baylor (27-6) shot 36.2 percent from the field (25 of 69).
“What we saw on the film told us we had to slow them down in transition, that was the first thing,” said senior guard Allen Williamson, who led Amherst with 18 points. “We also knew which way to try and turn certain players into traps or how hard they liked to go in a certain direction. We knew they didn’t like to shoot threes. We just took them out of the groove they had been playing with.”
Guard Aaron Toomey, the Division 3 Player of the Year, made just 4 of 11 shots and was in foul trouble, but the Amherst defense made up for it. Toomey finished with 16 points. Guard Connor Green came off the bench to score 16 and Workman added 14.
The Lord Jeffs led, 43-39, with 16:33 to play when the defense clamped down and held the Crusaders to two field goals over the next five minutes. The lead went to 55-43 and Amherst kept it in double figures the rest of the way.
Sunday’s win was not just about basketball tactics, it was about personal odysseys.
Hixon’s 84-year old father, Will, has a bucket list that includes walking the majestic fairways of Augusta National. Atlanta is a 2 ½-hour drive east to Augusta, where the Masters will be held this week. Father and son will make the trip on Monday for a practice round and David Hixon seemed as delighted with that as he was with his team’s national championship.
Then there was the season-long heartache felt by Toomey. Exactly a year ago, his grandmother, Mary Beasley, died in Raleigh, N.C. Toomey cried at halfcourt during the postgame celebration Sunday. He had gone all season without her text messages of encouragement and missed the dialogue with a woman he said once scored 62 points in a basketball game.
“We were going through her house after she died and found these pieces of paper with the stats for all my games my first two years,” Toomey said. He shook his head, then lowered it, and the emotion started to spill out again.
“People say, ‘Hey, you got to go for 63 and break the family record,’ ” Toomey said. “No, that’s hers. I’m happy with what we got today.”