Daylen Robinson walked into the interview room Saturday afternoon carrying the NCAA Division II national championship trophy and wearing a smile on his face.
Robinson, a former Northeast High School star, helped lead Central Missouri to the top of the Division II mountain with an 84-77 win over No. 7 West Liberty State at the Ford Center.
He nailed three consecutive clutch three-pointers, the last putting the 20th-ranked Mules in front 71-68 with 5:24 to go. Robinson finished with 21 points and recognition as the most outstanding player in the tournament while helping Central Missouri win its first Division II championship since 1984.
The title gives the state of Missouri back-to-back Division II men’s championships; Drury, which lost in the quarterfinals, was the defending champ.
Central Missouri’s win also made the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association the first Division II conference to have football and men’s basketball champions in the same season. Northwest Missouri won the football crown last fall.
“It’s a great feeling, a feeling a lot of people don’t get to feel,” Robinson said. “It took a lot of hard work to get here, and it took a lot of character as a team to not give up and keep fighting. It paid off.”
As for those three-pointers he took in pressure-packed moments, Robinson never thought twice about shooting the ball.
“After the first one, I felt like everything I took was going in,” Robinson said.
This victory goes beyond having confidence. This win, and really, this road to the title for the Mules was about fighting through adversity and showing the heart of a champion when it mattered most.
Central Missouri didn’t win its conference tournament, it had to win the NCAA Central Regional on the road, and it had to beat fourth-ranked Southern Connecticut and top-ranked Metro State this week in Evansville to reach the title game.
Early on, it looked as if the fight had been drained from the Mules. West Liberty, an up-tempo team, surged in front 27-19 after a layup by CJ Hester with 8:23 remaining in the first half.
West Liberty, 31-4, is the type of team that can run away with a game in a hurry. It averages just more than 100 points per game, and yet, concern never entered into the minds of the Mules.
“We really weren’t too worried,” Central Missouri sophomore guard Jordan Epps said. “We’ve been down before, and have not had an easy road here. But that shows how tough we are as a team. We are a strong team, and that showed in us winning the national championship.”
Epps helped keep hope alive for Central Missouri, hitting a three-pointer with 2 minutes left in the half. As his shot went through, he pumped his fist and the Mules were within four at 37-33.
Moments later, Preston Brunz knocked down a three, cutting the lead to 37-36. The Mules trailed 39-37 at the half.
Epps played a key role late as well on a day in which he scored 11 points. He scored on a layup that tied the game at 57-57 and nailed a clutch three-pointer with 11:09 left that tied the score at 60-60.
“I try to give a spark when I come into the game,” Epps said. “I’m thankful my teammates have faith in me to take those shots.”
From there, Robinson got hot from beyond the arc.
Smithville grad Dillon Deck tipped in a missed shot off a free throw for a 73-68 lead, Charles Hammork nailed his only three-pointer of the day for a 76-71 lead, and Deck drove strong to the basket for a layup that put the Mules in front 78-73.
Hester’s two free throws cut the Mules’ lead to 78-75 but Central Missouri finished strong as it celebrated at midcourt amid blue and silver confetti.
Central Missouri head coach Kim Anderson, who was 0-2 in the Final Four before this season, was proud of the perseverance his team showed and the effort it gave.
“When you coach, you dream of winning a title,” Anderson said. “There are better coaches than me without a title. It’s not me. It’s the players. I’m just the conductor of the band. Winning this is the ultimate feeling.”
Central Missouri shot 44.1 percent from the field and got 16 points from Deck. It made 11 three-pointers and allowed West Liberty to shoot just 45.2 percent. The Hilltoppers were just eight of 29 from beyond the arc, and that is a credit to the Mules for stepping up on defense when it mattered most.
“We contested shots, at the rim and the perimeter,” Robinson said. “We buckled down. Defense won us this game.”
As Robinson prepared to walk away from his interview, he talked about being able to go out a champion. Once considering going overseas instead of to college, he’s thrilled he made the decision he made.
“I said at the beginning of the year I wanted a ring. I got it,” Robinson said. “It’s a great way to end my career. I wouldn’t ask for it to end any other way.”