At the Division III basketball championship, emotions run just as strong

Sunday, March 21, 2010

SALEM, VA. The ball was in Alex Rubin's hands but there was nothing more he could do with it. The buzzer had just sounded, the confetti was already falling from the rafters of Salem Civic Center on Saturday afternoon and the players from Wisconsin-Stevens Point were charging the floor.

Rubin and his teammates from Williams had come into the Division III national championship game with a record of 30-1. With 11 minutes to go they led, 54-44, and appeared to be on their way to the national championship. But the Ephs went cold and the Pointers got hot. A 22-5 run gave Stevens Point a 66-59 lead with five minutes to go, and with about 1,000 fans who had made the trip from the Midwest going crazy, the Pointers held on for a 78-73 victory.

And so, a split second after classmate Blake Schultz's futile final shot had rimmed out, Rubin found himself standing helplessly with the ball in his hands. He looked at the ball for a moment and then flung it as far as he possibly could. Then, like his teammates, he collapsed in tears.

"It occurred to me that was the last buzzer I'd ever hear as a player," he said about 30 minutes later. "I knew it was the last time all seven of us [seniors] would be together as teammates." He forced a smile. "Tough moment."

If you think there is any difference at all in the emotions that run through basketball at the Division III level and the big-time level, you're right: For the players on the 404 Division III men's basketball teams, the final buzzer is almost always the final buzzer. Rubin, a Landon graduate, is majoring in psychology and Spanish. If he ever shakes hands with David Stern he will be wearing a suit, but not a baseball cap.

"I think it's very hard for people to understand from the outside what goes into playing Division III basketball," Stevens Point Coach Bob Semling said. "Our kids work every bit as hard as the Division I kids in the summer; the difference is they have to do it around the summer jobs which they have to work to pay their tuition.

"They all have dreams that they work for, just like the kids who play in the big time. For us, a day like today is what we dream about when we're putting in all the work." He paused for a moment. "Which is why your heart cracks just a little for those kids in the other locker room."

Semling is about as Midwestern and sincere as anyone can possibly be, just like his players, all of whom are from Wisconsin with the exception of center Ross Forman -- who is from Minnesota. The Williams players are from 13 states, and point guard James Wang was born in Taiwan and grew up in Australia. What they share is what Stevens Point center Matt Moses, voted the most outstanding player after scoring 22 points in the championship game, talked about as he stood clutching his strand of net.

"When I was little I had a miniature ball and hoop in my playroom," he said. "I thought about basketball, about playing basketball, about winning a championship all the time. I was from a small town [Fond du Lac, Wisc.] and a small school. The first time I drove to the Point I couldn't believe how far it was from home. I thought about all the times the coaches had come to see me and thought, 'Wow they really want me there.'

"I just didn't want my basketball career to end before today. Now it's over but I'll have this memory forever."

His voice choked as he talked, the same way most of the players -- on both teams -- choked up talking about what it meant to play in this game, to compete for a championship, even if there were only 2,835 people in the creaky 6,000-seat building in southwestern Virginia.

Salem has been the home of the Division III Final Four for the past 15 years. Players talk about "making it to Salem," the way golfers talk about making it to Augusta. It is Division III Nirvana. All four teams stay in the same hotel, share the same break room and then make the short trip to the Civic Center to play on back-to-back nights. Actually, they play on Friday night and Saturday afternoon. Stevens Point had 16 hours to rest after its semifinal win over Randolph-Macon on Friday night -- two hours less than Williams.

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