The best NCAA tournament game this weekend wasn’t on your bracket
March 25, 2014 § Leave a comment
This 46-year-old building in the middle of the small western Virginia city seems like any nondescript arena you might find in a number of southern towns, with a small sign in the ticket office window boasting a local symphony playing Pink Floyd music and the “Star City Wrestle Fest” featuring John Cena Sr. as the highlights of its April schedule.
But for one weekend every March, this structure and this city of 25,000, which sits just west of Roanoke, becomes a unique basketball Mecca for the players, coaches and fans of Division III’s best men’s teams. Unlike the Division I quartet that will descend on Dallas in 11 days, schools that reach this destination aren’t feted by ESPN cameras, huge corporate sponsored tailgate parties or even a free three-day music festival headlined by Bruce Springsteen. But if they’re lucky, they do have homemade cookies waiting for them.
“When you say the word Salem, guys know what you’re talking about,” Amherst head coach David Hixon, whose team made its sixth semifinal appearance since 2004 this year, told For The Win. “You say the word Salem, that’s the holy grail. One word – Salem.”
The team from Amherst, a small private Massachusetts college and defending Division III national champions, arrived in Salem Wednesday night along with their bitter in-state rivals from Williams College and two Midwestern schools, the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and Illinois Wesleyan.
When each team landed at the Roanoke-Blacksburg Airport, they were greeted by a local host family, volunteers who assist the players, coaches and their families with dinner reservations, laundry and any other conveniences they need while staying in the area. The Williams players even received homemade cookies from their host, Sue England, who also hosted many of this team’s seniors during their previous Final Four appearance in 2011.
As the NCAA’s Division I showcase grows even more gargantuan with every year, the Division III tournament remains a consistent small-town affair, as schools advance through four rounds of university-hosted regions before heading to the city at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
For The Win traveled down to Salem during the opening weekend of the Big Dance to see what makes this final weekend such a unique destination for the participants and supporters of this level of basketball.
Zephaniah Swift Moore never played a minute of hoops…..
Yet the rivalry between Amherst and Williams took shape in 1821 when Moore, then the president of Williams College, resigned and traveled sixty miles east to found Amherst Academy, which would later become Amherst College. The two schools became basketball nemeses in 1901, predating the first game between Duke and Carolina by 19 years and creating a regional duel that would remain just as intense.
The Williams Ephs (named after school founder Colonel Ephraim Williams) entered Salem with a 117-96 all-time advantage over Amherst, but the Lord Jeffs held a 3-0 lead this season, winning both regular season games and their NESCAC conference tournament matchup.
Unlike the private-public institutional contrast of the Tar Heels and Blue Devils, Williams and Amherst mirror each other in nearly every way. Both teams are made up of kids from all over the country and each team’s current roster boasts two players from New Hampshire’s Philips Exeter Academy, the tony prep school whose famous alums include members of the du Pont, Lincoln, Rockefeller and Shriver families, not to mention a recent graduate named Mark Zuckerberg.
“We like to say we’re the Duke of Division III,” Williams coach Mike Maker said. “It’s a small, private liberal arts college where basketball is important but it doesn’t supercede the academic experience. If you can get a family and young man who buys into that, that’s what attracts them to our situation.”
With no athletic scholarships available at the Division III level, students at any of the participating schools only receive financial aid on a need basis. Williams senior and math major Michael Mayer offered reporters the opportunity to hear part of a presentation on “the gamma theory” that he had given in a class just before leaving for Salem.
“I can recite it for you guys if you’re interested,” he joked.
Most of the players from both teams were recruited by smaller Division I schools and some Ivy League institutions but opted for the opportunity to win a national title instead. Forward Duncan Robinson had opportunities to play for Brown and Columbia but chose Williams. When the Ephs got their fourth shot at Amherst of the season in Friday’s national semifinal game, the 6’7″ forward was unstoppable, leading all scorers with 30 points in a 98-69 rout that neither team saw coming.
It wasn’t much of a tailgate…
But the six Wisconsin-Whitewater fans drinking Busch Light in the Salem Civic Center parking lot on a beautiful Friday afternoon were giving it their all. Four of them, current or recently graduated students, had just arrived in Virginia about five hours earlier, completing an all-night road trip that started around 6 p.m. Central time the night before.
Joe Hansen had been to Salem plenty of times, but this is probably the first time he got to enjoy the city while drinking a beer and wearing camo shorts, team-logoed sunglasses and a backwards neon hat with the word “Drunk” on it. The starting center on three national championship football teams at Whitewater from 2009-11, Hansen came down to support his former roommate Alex Merg, the basketball team’s senior starting point guard.
“He was here when we played here so I decided to come and return the favor,” Hansen, now a teacher in Wisconsin, said.
The farthest of the four schools from Salem, the Whitewater fanbase also proved to be the most substantial, with several hundred family members and students making the 14 hour trek to a place that’s become a second home to their athletic program.
Since 2002, Whitewater, who won the 2012 national title in basketball, has been to eight national championship football games in Salem, winning five, and won two women’s volleyball championships there as well. With its boisterous fanbase chanting “U-Dub-Dub” for nearly all 40 minutes of Friday’s semifinal, the Warhawks advanced to Saturday’s final with a physical 71-63 win over Illinois Wesleyan.
“When one team goes to Salem, there’s such a tradition of excellence that pushes everybody,” Emily McCullich, a fifth-year senior and former Whitewater women’s basketball player, said. “Everybody supports each other too. It’s a really cool atmosphere to be a part of.”
The man behind 70 national championships
A statue of Gen. Andrew Lewis, a local hero of the French and Indian and Revolutionary War, greets visitors as they drive up to the entrance of the Salem Civic Center, but it’s Carey Harveycutter who truly welcomes them to town. An employee at the building since he was 16, the city’s director of tourism (he served as the full-time director of civic facilities for 41 years before scaling back to part time last year) decided in the early 1990s that he wanted the town to host a Division III championship football game.
After a presentation convinced the NCAA to move the game from Bradenton, Florida to Salem in 1993, Harveycutter and his staff were such welcoming hosts that the annual Stagg Bowl hasn’t been played anywhere since. Soon after, Salem hosted the Division III softball tournament and when the bid for men’s basketball came up in 1996, he got that too. The weekend’s tournament was the 70th national championship Salem has hosted in the past 21 years. The events bring in between $4.5 and $6 million in additional local revenue annually.
“It’s tough to get ‘em but it’s even tougher to keep ‘em,” Harveycutter said. “This facility, while it looks really good is from 1967. There’s been a lot of great basketball arenas built on college campuses and public facilities that could do a really great job. We try to overcome things like that with great Southern hospitality and trying to be ready when anybody needs something. We know how to handle it and take care of it now.”
In addition to providing the host families, Harveycutter has made the entire event feel like a collective local project. Each team is required by the NCAA to provide some kind of community service when they arrive in Salem, with Harveycutter and his staff pairing them with schools and local charitable organizations.
“It’s a big deal you’d only get in a small community,” Harveycutter said. “Before it was here, basketball was in Buffalo at Buff State. It can’t be as big a deal when you’ve got all those Division I schools right there.”
Two tournaments in two days
Scott Greenman had already seen enough of one powerhouse from Wisconsin this weekend. While the Ephs were preparing for practice Thursday, Greenman, an assistant coach at American University, was in Milwaukee watching his Patriot League champions suffer a 40-point loss to No. 2 seed Wisconsin. After the Eagles decided to charter a plane home to Washington D.C. later that night, Greenman made the decision to drive down to Salem Friday morning to watch his brother Mike, a freshman starting point guard for Williams, play in his first Final Four.
“It’s more nervewracking watching than it is playing,” Scott Greenman, who played at Princeton from 2002 to 2005, said. “Coaching and watching him I probably have the same feeling. You want them to do really well. The less control you have, the more nervous you get.”
Whether it’s in front of 2000 fans or the record-setting 80,000 expected to fill AT&T Stadium, there’s a certain level of anxious energy that enters a gym when the ultimate achievement in that activity is just one win away.
“The thing that really doesn’t change is the kids are still really excited, they still want to win and you can’t do anything differently to change that,” former Atlantic 10 commissioner Linda Bruno, who now oversees Division III’s Skyline Conference, said. “It’s a different kind of event, but we’re all reaching for the same goal. Everyone wants to win a national championship.”
Quardell Young didn’t know who Tyus Edney was
It’s understandable that the Wisconsin-Whitewater junior guard hadn’t heard of the former UCLA star, whose coast-to-coast full-court scurry against Missouri with 4.8 seconds left in the second round of the 1995 NCAA tournament remains one of college basketball’s most memorable moments of the past 20 years. Young would have been a toddler when it happened.
While Edney’s play kept UCLA’s championship season alive, it took Young just four seconds to clinch a title for the Warhawks and break Williams’ hearts in the process.
In a spirited game that featured 12 lead changes, Mayer’s tip-in gave Williams a 73-72 edge with just 4.9 seconds left. His teammate Robinson admitted afterwards that he thought “we just won the national championship.”
Instead of calling a timeout, the Warhawks quickly inbounded the ball to Young, who blew by the Ephs defense and drove to the hoop for a layup, drawing a foul and giving Whitewater a 74-73 margin with just 0.9 seconds to go. After making his free throw and a failed last-ditch heave by Williams, Wisconsin-Whitewater claimed its second national title in three years.
“I don’t think you could ask for anything better at our level to have a national championship come down to a finish like that,” Warhawks coach Pat Miller said after the game.
“He’s been an absolute inspiration to our team”
After the confetti stopped raining down and the Warhawks accepted their trophy, the players and staff surrounded the basket in front of their bench and started individually climbing the ladder to each cut down a piece of the net. The first strand didn’t go to a player or even to someone with the ability to cut it down on his own.
That fabric instead went to 22-year-old A.J. Bocchini, a team manager for the past three seasons who has become an integral part of the group. Bocchini, who is confined to a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy, will graduate next year and hopes to coach at the Division III level at some point in the future.
Bocchini’s father, a high school athletic director, asked Miller when Bocchini enrolled if there was any way to get him involved with the team. He ended up handling the team’s shot clock during home games and becoming one of the locker room’s most spirited personalities in the process.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been around anyone as passionate about basketball, in particularly Warhawk basketball, as A.J.,” Miller said. “We got him in the huddle on Thursday at practice and his message to the guys was ‘Finish.’ He’s gone from being a guy who kind of had hung around to a leader. He’s a leader of this team and he inspires guys. You look at the adversity he faces and what he’s willing to go through to be with us, travel with us, be part of our program. You can’t help but look at the guy and love the kid.”