ATLANTA — Midnight finally struck for Mary Hardin-Baylor, whose magical run through the NCAA Division III Tournament ended with a thud amid the glare and glitz of the national championship spotlight.
“With this run we’d made to get here, maybe we were thinking just a little bit that we had gotten some fairy dust sprinkled on us,” Crusaders coach Ken DeWeese said. “If so, we must have showered too much when we got here, because we did not play well offensively today.”
UMHB missed long-range shots, short ones and even lay-ups, never looking comfortable on the big stage Sunday afternoon in an 87-70 loss to Amherst (Mass.) in the national championship game at Philips Arena.
After knocking off No. 6 Whitworth (Wash.), No. 11 St. Mary’s (Md.) and No. 1 St. Thomas (Minn.) to earn the right to play in a game with all the bells and whistles — spotlight introductions, video montages and 6,284 frenzied fans — the Crusaders (27-6) finally looked like an unranked team against the second-ranked Lord Jeffs (30-2).
“The opportunity of being here was great, but we didn’t come here just to enjoy all the festivities,” said UMHB senior wing Thomas Orr, who scored a game-high 24 points on 7-of-19 shooting and grabbed 11 rebounds. “We came here to win a game, and we didn’t do that. Our ultimate goal wasn’t reached, so it’s not as fun anymore.”
While the Crusaders never led and appeared overwhelmed by their surroundings or the weight of the game, the Lord Jeffs scored the first 10 points and never relinquished the lead.
“I was absolutely delighted with the way we came out of the gate today,” said Amherst 36th-year coach David Hixon, who steered the Lord Jeffs to their second national title in seven years. “We weren’t nervous. We played carefree and guys made plays and made shots early on.”
Sparked by the play of tournament MVP Allen Williamson, Amherst led 10-0 before UMHB got on the board with a Kitrick Bell tip-in at the 16:58 mark.
Typical of the Crusaders’ day, junior forward Bell — an honorable mention All-American — scored only two more points and was 2-for-9 from the floor and 0-of-2 from the foul line to go with 12 rebounds.
“I don’t know if many of you are golfers. But if you ever have a friendly wager with a neighbor for a free lawn mowing and it rides on a 6-foot putt, sometimes that 6-foot putt looks like 66 feet,” DeWeese said.
“That’s kind of the way things looked today.
“Kitrick Bell never misses shots around the basket, and he just missed them over and over today. It was just a terrible offensive day for our whole team, with no rhythm or flow. It comes down to putting the ball in the hole, and we didn’t do that well enough.”
Amherst led by as many as 13 points in the first half and was up 38-30 by intermission, draining six 3-point shots and scoring 10 points off putbacks in the first half.
“Through the whole tournament, I’ve tried to be aggressive and get myself good looks. I was fortunate enough to get some early buckets today and get the guys going,” said Williamson, who had seven of his team-high 18 points in the first half. “I didn’t want anyone thinking we were going to pass up open shots. This is a great way to finish off my career.”
A putback by senior Brian Todd and a driving bucket by Orr to start the second half cut the gap to four points, but UMHB never got closer the rest of the way.
“When we pulled within four, I thought we were going to be able to ride the momentum and tie or take the lead, eventually,” Orr said. “But every time we started to cut the gap, they’d hit a big shot or get an offensive rebound. It just killed our momentum. We never got to where we had enough momentum to tie it or take the lead.”
Todd had 17 points and junior guard James Allen — an all-tournament selection — added 15 for the Crusaders, who thrive in transition but forced only six turnovers. UMHB shot 36 percent but made only five 3-pointers, compared to 41 percent and 10 3s from Amherst.
“It’s unbelievable that we only turned it over six times against them. The steals they make are very typical of how they play. You think you have a pass out of habit, then they go for the ball,” Hixon said. “They were quicker than us man-for-man, and got to a couple of balls and took off. We expected more of that than there actually was.”
Williamson explained how the Lord Jeffs defused the Crusaders.
“We had two weeks off to prepare for this team. We had four (game films) or so available to look at each player and know what their tendencies were,” he said. “We were able to anticipate what they were going to do and take away their primary moves. I think it frustrated them.
“Stopping them from playing one-on-one like they want took them out of their offense, and they forced up a lot of shots.”
Aaron Toomey — the NABC D-III player of the year — and Connor Green had 16 points apiece, and Willy Workman added 14 and 10 rebounds for Amherst, which stretched a 10-point lead to as many as 19 in the final 5½ minutes.
“I thought if we could keep Amherst at around 40 percent (shooting) or below that we would be fine,” DeWeese said. “If we had shot it normal, it would have been a totally different basketball game.”