|Stephen Brennan and Babson enjoy a championship moment on their second trip to Salem.
Photo by Dave Hilbert, d3photography.com
For most basketball fans, “The Block” brings to mind Lebron James’ full-court sprint to reject Andre Iguodala and secure the 2016 NBA championship for Cleveland. For Division III fans, it will now conjure images of Joey Flannery missing the front end of a one and one, only to sprint full court and reject a Nolan Ebel layup and preserve Babson’s first national championship.
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The story for most of the tournament was the emergence of a young Augustana team that just seemed to get better and better with each round. In the end, though, Babson, the only senior-laden team in Salem this week, proved that champions are made of experience and determination. The Beavers defeated the Vikings 79-78 in a tense, hard-fought title game, solidifying the top ranking Babson received for much of the year.
The core of this squad were sophomores when Babson lost to Augustana in the national semifinal two years ago. Flannery, named D3hoops.com National Player of the Year before the game, summed up how that experience shaped this one.
“Being here two years ago did a lot for us. The first time down here it’s easy to get caught up in the lights and all the stuff you do throughout the weekend – all the media and the big stadium. This time around we were all business. We were here to win two games.”
His place on the charts
Joey Flannery ended his career in the top 15 in Division III men's basketball history in scoring, and he wasn't the only one in Salem to do so. The updated totals following the 2016-17 season:
|1. Andre Foreman, Salisbury St.||1988-89, 91-92||2,940|
|2. Willie Chandler, Misericordia||2000-03||2,898|
|3. John Grotberg, Grinnell||2006-09||2,848|
|4. Lamonte Thomas, J&W||2009-12||2,740|
|5. Lamont Strothers, CNU||1988-91||2,709|
|6. Matt Hancock, Colby||1987-90||2,678|
|7. Scott Fitch, SUNY Geneseo||1990-91, 93-94||2,634|
|8. Joey Flannery, Babson||2014-17||2,620|
|9. Greg Grant, Trenton State||1987-89||2,611|
|10. Rick Hughes, Thomas More||1993-96||2,605|
|11. Mike Hoyt, Mount St. Mary||2004-07||2,586|
|12. Ty Sabin, Ripon||2014-17||2,559|
|13. Wil Peterson, St. Andrews||1980-83||2,553|
|14. Ron Stewart, Otterbein||1980-83||2,549|
|15. Steve Djurickovic, Carthage||2008-11||2,547|
|Salisbury State now known as Salisbury; Trenton State now known as TCNJ|
Also named Most Outstanding Player for the tournament, Flannery scored 167 points over six games, including 23 in the final, to go with six rebounds and seven assists, although those numbers will forever be dwarfed by “The Block.”
Babson overcame a 25 point first half deficit Friday to defeat Whitman in the national semifinal, but comebacks have been par for the course this year, as Babson has relied on huge runs to finish the season 31-2.
The Beavers closed the first half of the title game with a 25-5 run and opened a double-digit lead in the second, only to see Augustana rush back with great shooting and tenacity. Ebel led the Vikings with 20 points, seven rebounds, and five assists, while one of Augustana’s few seniors, Jacob Johnston contributed 15 points and worked incredibly hard on defense to contain and limit Flannery, keeping the game close.
Despite Flannery’s brilliance on the floor, Babson’s real killer edge was a whole host of players who performed at elite levels this weekend. Senior Charlie Rice had a double-double in the second half against Whitman to spur the extra gear needed to stop college basketball’s only undefeated team. Senior Isaiah Nelsen scored 38 points across the two games and dominated the post in both. Junior Nick Comenale hit eight three pointers this weekend, almost always in big spots when the team needed a basket.
While Babson’s talent runs deep, the bench does not. An already short supply of players was threatened late in the season when both senior Sam Bohmiller and junior Bradley Jacks went down with injuries. Both played this weekend, but not at the level or with the minutes typical of the season.
“It’s a family here,” said Nelsen, “These guys are my brothers.” That feeling of family permeates the Babson squad, with players rarely acknowledging individual achievement, but speaking only of team accomplishments from Flannery right down to the end of the bench.
“We prepared for this game from the first day of training camp,” said Babson head coach Stephen Brennan, “For our guys to execute and do it on this stage was tremendous. It’s been an unbelievable run the last four years. The other teams are young; they’ll be back. This was kind of a culmination for us."
Those young teams are impressive. Augustana’s Ebel, just a sophomore, led the charge with poise and confidence beyond his age, using his speed to frustrate defenders and keep his team focused and efficient. Other sophomores, Chrishawn Orange and Brett Benning along with junior Dylan Sortillo and 6-10 freshman Micah Martin, who had five blocks in the final, will return next year to lead an incredibly strong and constantly improving Vikings squad.
Augustana coach Grey Giovanine said, “Their five seniors were better than our six freshmen and sophomores, but I couldn’t be prouder of this group. I’m not sure I could’ve seen this coming, but they’ve gotten better and better. We are a much better team than we were three weeks ago and we belong here.”
Augustana will be favorites for a return trip next year, but they’ll have to battle in the polls with Whitman, who returns every member of a 31-1 squad that took on all comers this year. Williams also loses just one senior, Dan Aronowitz, who joined Flannery, Nelsen, Ebel, and Orange on the all-tournament team.
Babson will have a tougher road, replacing six seniors, but they’ve built a truly solid foundation and created a sense of excitement on campus and among alumni that saw thousands of supporters make the trip to Salem.
Flannery finished his career eighth all-time in Division III scoring with 2,620 points and plans to pursue professional opportunities before coaching, “I can’t be done with basketball. I will always be a part of this game.”