U.S. Basketball Writers Association 2010 BEST WRITING CONTEST
COLUMN | GAME STORY | ENTERPRISE | MAGAZINE FEATURE | FEATURE

FIRST PLACE: GAME STORY
At the Division III basketball championship, emotions run just as strong
John Feinstein, Washington Post

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.

Both these schools are Division III royalty. Stevens Point was coached by Dick Bennett and led by future NBA star Terry Porter in the 1980s when it was still an NAIA school. It won back-to-back championships under Bennett's brother, Jack, in 2004 and 2005, when Semling was an assistant coach. The Pointers' victim in the 2004 championship game was Williams which was trying for back-to-back titles after winning in 2003. Bucknell Coach Dave Paulsen was the coach then and Saturday he sat behind the Williams bench in a Williams T-shirt.

"I've seen it from both sides," he said as the Stevens Point players celebrated. "Greatest feeling in the world or the worst feeling in the world."

The chance to have that feeling even the worst one is what brings a lot of the players to these schools. Many are recruited by lower-level Division I schools but choose the Division III route because they want to play in a championship game like this one.

"For a lot of our kids it's a choice between an Ivy League school or a Patriot League school or us," said Williams Coach Mike Maker, whose brother, Wyatt, played on Villanova's 1985 championship team. "They're all great students. But the kids who go Ivy or Patriot make a decision that they want to play basketball to make the tournament. Our kids want to play to win this tournament."

Rubin is a perfect example. He was recruited by Ivy and Patriot League schools but chose Williams along with fellow Landon graduate Mike Moorstein, a backup point guard to have the chance to play in this game.

"I wanted to win," he said. "Williams had a great winning tradition and I thought we could get to the Final Four and I thought we could win it. That was the goal when we all got here four years ago and we came so close to reaching it."

In the end, it was Moses who made the big shots at the finish, making four free throws in the final minute and a driving layup with three seconds left that sealed the victory. Schultz, who had scored 25 points in the semifinals and was the Ephs' leading scorer all season, simply couldn't find an open shot down the stretch as Stevens Point attacked the perimeter, fully aware of the fact that Williams was shooting 46 percent from the three-point line for the season and had made 16 of 28 in the semifinals against Guilford.

Schultz's reaction to his final college buzzer was similar to Rubin's.

He stared at the charging Stevens Point players for a split second before walking to the bench and burying his head in his jersey.

After a few seconds he stood up and gathered his teammates in a circle while they waited for the (endless) awards ceremony to begin.

"Sometimes when you lose your last game like that there's a tendency to forget what a great season you've had, what you accomplished together in order to get to the last game," he said. "I just wanted all the guys to know that I loved them and I was happy and proud to be a part of this team. There are seven of us who are seniors. All of them mean the world to me and always will."

Like Rubin, he managed a smile. "I told the younger guys they owed me one."

He was naturally choked up.

Which is exactly how it should be.

Second place: David Woods, Indianapolis Star
Third place: Ken Davis, Basketball Times Online
Fourth place: Mike Waters, Syracuse Post-Standard
Fifth place: Ton Noie, South Bend Tribune