The University of the District of Columbia, behind a 24-point performance by 7-foot center Earl Jones, completed a storybook season by winning the NCAA Division II basketball championship tonight.
The Firebirds, in their first venture into postseason play, defeated defending champion Florida Southern, 73-63. It was a close contest until halfway through the second half, when UDC went ahead by five, then scored six straight points.
It was billed as a battle of all-Americas, Jones going against 6-9 John Ebeling of Florida Southern. Both had been named earlier today to the coaches' Division II all-America first team. But Jones outplayed the hard-working Ebeling, who managed 18 points but failed to get Jones into foul trouble or to alter his style of play.
Jones played the first half cautiously, following orders from Coach Wil Jones, who told him "to keep my hands up and avoid fouls."
UDC led by only one point at halftime, but after intermission, Jones made a slam dunk on the first possession. Then teammate Michael Britt raced downcourt after a miss by Florida Southern and was fouled on a dunk attempt. He sank both free throws to put UDC up by five, and the Firebirds took control.
Britt, who had 20 points tonight after scoring 40 points against California State-Bakersfield in the semifinals, was voted the tournament's most valuable player. But it was Jones, plugging up the middle against Ebeling and scoring a game-high 24 points, who won this one.
"He's my Mount Hope," said Coach Jones, alluding to his center's hometown of Mt. Hope, W. Va. "He was everywhere."
The usually loquacious Coach Jones was hard-pressed to express his feelings about this victory. "It hasn't hit me yet," he said. "I can't explain it. It's just seeing the kids. They worked so hard and they went through all the traveling and the hard times (UDC only this year got a gym). I told them they could do it."
As he spoke, the UDC players gathered on the floor, surrounded by some of the 500 fans who traveled here from the Nation's Capital, and accepted gold watches from the NCAA.
Britt said, "We wanted to be the first college team in D.C. to win a national title. Now we got it. I hope Georgetown wins a national championship, too, but we can always say we were first."
UDC pulled away twice in the second half, but the first time Florida Southern came back.
The Firebirds went up by eight, 48-40, after three unanswered baskets. Britt made a slam dunk on a fast break, Jones tapped in his own miss on an ensuing break and Weaver Blondin scored from 15 feet.
But Florida Southern ran off its own streak of three straight to draw to within two points. UDC responded with a 10-1 spree, which decided the championship.
At 48-46, Greg Carson sank a 15-footer and Jones made two free throws. After a free throw by Florida Southern, Carson sank another jumper, and Jones made a 15-foot jump hook. Britt stole a Florida Southern pass and threw it downcourt to Jones, who sank another jump hook. That made it 58-47, with 8:20 to go.
UDC then slowed the game.
Wil Jones confirmed that his plan was to play cautiously the first half, keep Britt and Jones out of foul trouble with the sturdy, physical Ebeling, and seek to gain the edge with aggressive second-half play.
Florida Southern had gone into double overtime the night before to defeat Kentucky Wesleyan, 90-89. The Firebirds, by contrast, were home early after their 76-71 victory over Cal State-Bakersfield.
UDC shot 54.4 percent from the field and almost 85 percent from the free-throw line. Florida Southern, in the Division II final four for the third straight time, shot only 47 percent from the floor and 83 percent from the free-throw line.
Carson had 13 points for the Firebirds, who hurried off to a celebration at a downtown hotel. Kenny Payne had 12. Britt was high rebounder with eight.