March 17, 2007

SALEM, VA – The Amherst College men's basketball team faced defending national champion Virginia-Wesleyan College in the 2007 NCAA Division III National Championship game this evening at the Salem Civic Center in Salem, VA. Amherst made free throws down the stretch to seal the program's first national title with an 80-67 win.

The final day of Division III men's basketball opened with an exciting game between Washington University in St. Louis and The College of Wooster. The Bears of Wash.-U. took the consolation match-up by a 92-84 final score to finish third in the nation.

In the national championship game. VWC controlled the opening tip and ran through its offense on two straight posessions, working the ball into the paint before knocking down back-to-back lay-ins for a 4-0 lead. Amherst senior quad-captains Dan Wheeler (Bloomington, MN) and Tim McLaughlin (Chatham, NJ) responded with consecutive turn-around jumpers for the Lord Jeffs to knot things up at 4-4.

Amherst snagged its first lead of the game at 7-4 when junior point guard Andrew Olson (San Diego, CA) hit on a transition three-point attempt. The Jeffs made an early change on the defensive end, moving senior quad-captain Dan O'Shea (Lawrence, MA) onto VWC's Brandon Adair, which resulted in two straight steals.

O'Shea would be forced to the bench at the 14:01 mark after he picked up his second foul playing aggressive defense on the talented Adair. The substitution would bring 6'10" Kevin Hopkins (Greenfield Center, NY) into the game to take a crack at Adair. Hopkins immediately made his presence felt by tipping home a rebound on his first trip down the floor.

Amherst extended its lead to 17-11 at the 11-minute mark on a nice backdoor cut from McLaughlin. The speedy Marlins were caught on multiple occasions in the first half overplaying Jeff defenders ball-side, allowing Amherst to cut to the hoop after a jab step towards the ball.

Amherst increased its lead to 26-16 when junior forward Fletcher Walters (Ann Arbor, MI) hit on his first shot of the night from long range, before Olson knocked down a pair from the charity stripe.

With just under four minutes remaining in the first half, Olson headed to the bench for some much deserved rest, and a line-up which included three reserve players took over, causing consecutive turnovers from the Marlins again.

After having his own attempt on offense blocked, Amherst sophomore Brian Baskauskas (Palo Alto, CA) blocked a VCU jumper from the player he was matched up against. Head coach David Hixon, '75, went back to his four starters alongside junior Brandon Jones (Hopatcong, NJ) to close the half.

Clinging to a nine-point lead, Baskauskas closed the half with a tough baseline jumper to extend to a 39-28 advantage heading into the locker room. Coming out of the locker room, Amherst was riding a very balanced first half, with seven players having scored at least four points.

Despite surrendering consecutive scores to open the second half, Amherst responded with poise, as it turned to Hopkins on the block for a three-point play. The 2006 Final Four MVP, Ton Ton Balenga, responded for the Marlins with a three-pointer of his own.

After almost throwing the ball away trying to work it into Hopkins, McLaughlin nailed a deep three with a man in his face. After five minutes of the second stanza, Amherst held strong with a 47-37 lead.

After a steal from Jones on the perimeter, Olson pushed the ball up court, finding Wheeler for a lay-up. Senior quad-captain Mike Salerno (Shrewsbury, MA), Amherst's defensive stopper, pressed the Marlins and forced a five-second call. On the ensuing possession, McLaughlin hit on a fade-away jumper and was fouled in the act.

Amherst hit a few free throws, bringing their game total to 13-of-14, and swelling the lead to 54-39. Baskauskas lifted the Jeffs onto his young shoulders, converting back-to-back three-point plays and a third lay-up, bringing the advantage to 22 points.

At the 8:27 mark, Baskauskas went to the bench with four fouls, and just seconds later, O'Shea fouled out. Walters and Hopkins came onto the floor with fresh legs for the Jeffs, who still held a solid lead at 68-51 after a rainbow three-pointer from the top of the key.

The lead was down to 11 points with 4:24 showing in regulation after five straight free throws from Balenga. In the title game last year, VWC rallied from far behind against Wittenberg to take home the school's first crown.

VWC continued to chip away at Amherst's lead hitting from the free throw line while time stood still on the game clock. Baskauskas responded for Amherst with a silky smooth turn-around jumper in the paint.

After a tough five-second call against Olson, Balenga hit on a floater over Hopkins to close the lead to 10 points. Amherst remained composed and broke the pressure of the Marlins full court press, with Wheeler eventually converting at the rim.

As time ticked off the clock, Amherst held strong and closed out the game with veteran play from Olson and the captains. With a final score of 80-67, the 2007 Amherst College Lord Jeffs won the program's first National Championship. Finishing the season with a record of 30-2, Amherst heads back to an ecstatic Lord Jeff Nation with a first place trophy in hand.

McLaughlin was named to the NCAA All-Tournament Team for his usual well-balanced, all-around excellent performances during the Jeffs' run to the title. After being named the Sectional Most Valuable Player in the early rounds of the tournament, Olson picked up the MVP award for the entire tournament, adding to his stellar list of accomplishments for the season.

For head coach Dave Hixon, his 550th win at Amherst will surely be his most memorable, as the Amherst grad had never reached the championship game prior to this season despite having so much success in all his years with the Lord Jeffs.