Those who lament the enormity of major-college basketball and are wistful for meaningful games with loud fans close to the floor would have loved the NCAA Division II championship game.
If you pulled for Drury, a private liberal arts university in Springfield, Mo., you’d have enjoyed it even more.
The Panthers found a way to overcome Metro State of Denver 74-73 on Sunday in a game in which Drury trailed for all but a few possessions. Star guard Alex Hall made two free throws with 22 seconds remaining, and the Panthers played tremendous defense on the Roadrunners’ final gasp, clinching the program’s first NCAA basketball title.
Drury won the 1979 NAIA championship in Kemper Arena.
As the final buzzer sounded, the red-clad Drury fans that made up perhaps one-third of the 7,763 in Philips Arena, home of the Atlanta Hawks, erupted. Confetti and streamers fell on the celebrating players. Championship hats were passed out, nets were cut, and Hall jumped into a group of fans.
“This was easily the most fun game of my life,” said Drake Patterson, a sophomore from Blue Springs who scored 12 points and helped keep Drury within striking distance in the first half with three three-pointers.
The game, and the Division III championship, was played at the site of the Division I men’s Final Four in conjunction with the 75th birthday of the NCAA Tournament. No admission was charged, and Louisville and Michigan fans, waiting for their teams’ championship game tonight at the Georgia Dome, took in an afternoon of action.
They all saw a wild game.
Metro led by 17 in the first half, but Drury, champions of the Great Lakes Valley Conference, cut it to 12 at the break. The Panthers had it tied 61/2 minutes into the second half, but it appeared the Roadrunners were in good shape with a 73-67 edge with 4 minutes remaining.
But Metro didn’t score again, coming up empty on seven possessions, including two front ends of one-and-ones.
On the last-ditch effort after Hall’s free throws gave him 21 points, Metro didn’t get a good look. Mitch McCarron threw up a shot with about 4 seconds left that didn’t hit the rim, and the ball was batted around enough so there was no second shot.
Drury coach Steve Hesser, in his ninth season, had spent most of his coaching career in the high school ranks at Springfield Glendale and in Bartlesville, Okla., before getting the Panthers’ job. Throughout the tense second half, he rarely left his chair, but the passive approach had a cause. Hesser is still fighting the effects of pneumonia. Assistant coaches were left to the high-energy coaching acts, and Hesser said after the game he’s still only 85 percent healthy.
“I’ll probably coach this way for the rest of my life,” Hesser said.