Amherst piling up wins

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Eric Sellew averaged 13.8 points per game during Amherst's recent six-game winning streak, which was snapped Wednesday night at Hamilton.
Amherst athletics photo
With the exception of one highly visible game this season, Dave Hixon has been patrolling the sidelines for Amherst without fail in his 42nd season as head coach.
Amherst athletics photo

By Brian Lester

David Hixon is getting set to head out into the cold on a winter afternoon to use the snowblower on his driveway when a writer calls to ask if the veteran coach of the Amherst men's basketball team has a little time to talk hoops.

Hixon starts by showing his appreciation for the call.

“I was just getting ready to go out there. I appreciate you calling,” Hixon said with a laugh.

His team has been anything but cold. The Mammoths rattled off five consecutive wins in the month of February during a crazy stretch that featured five games in nine days before losing their finale 81-77 against Hamilton on Wednesday night in a makeup game that pitted two top 15 teams against each other.

The February stretch, which included three road games, had potential disaster written all over it. The Mammoths answered the call.

“It’s been easy to stay focused because we’ve played all good teams,” Hixon said. “When you throw those trap games in, it can be tough. The guys look at the record of a bad opponent and may not come in with an edge. But we’ve had one.”

Junior forward Eric Sellew said success late in the year came down to always pushing forward.

“We’ve put our heads down and just pushed on through,” Sellew said. “The loss on Wednesday was tough, but we’ve finding a way to win most of our games.”

That doesn’t mean it hasn’t taken toll physically.

“It was definitely tough, said Sellew, who is averaging 11.5 points and grabbing 8.5 rebounds per outing. “We’re sore from it, but we expected that. We have a lot of toughness on this team and have been able to fight through the adversity.”

Amherst is 20-4 and the third seed in the conference tournament. The Mammoths open Saturday against Wesleyan in the quarterfinal round.

The Mammoths were 11th in the first set of NCAA regional rankings last week and Hixon joked his team would probably have to win 30 more games to have a shot at making the NCAA tournament. Amherst is at the top of the Northeast Region this week.

People asked him what kind of team he thought he had this season. The long-time coach, now in his 42nd year at the helm, had a simple response for them.

“I thought we had something good from the get-go and I told people not to sleep on us,” Hixon said. “There were a couple of games we fell asleep, but that happens to even the good teams. But as my good friend John Calipari says, our team has refused to lose this month. We were down 12 to Middlebury and came back to win (97-93). And we were down against Williams and found a way to win (84-79). I have an interesting group of kids. They have grit to them. I like what they are doing.”

Sellew can’t say he’s surprised by where the Mammoths stand at this point in the season.

“We felt good about our team in the offseason and set the bar high for the year,” Sellew said. “We talked a lot about our goals and what it was going to take to accomplish them.”

The fact that Amherst has had success is impressive, especially when one listens to Hixon talk about just how much better the basketball is now at the Division III level. He points to AAU ball for having a part in that.

“AAU has borne its fruit. These kids have hundreds of games under their belts now before they get to us,” Hixon said. “A whole slew of them can shoot the ball. These guys can play. They are very skilled. Unless you play a really bad team, if you come in without an edge, you will struggle. You better be ready to play. Division III basketball is really good right now.”

And Amherst is one of those teams.

One of the keys for the Mammoths in surviving their hectic late-season stretch has been Hixon’s ability to manage his team in practice. He doesn’t want his key players not being fresh on game day.

“We practice appropriately,” Hixon said. “If a kid needs a day, he’ll be off to the side shooting free throws instead of scrimmaging at the end of practice. None of them like it. They get mad. They want to play. But it’s important that we are at our best on game day.”

Sellew is looking forward to the conference tournament and the possibility of playing in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2017.

“We have to stay tough and keep playing the way we have been playing lately,” Sellew said. “Defense is going to be key. We take pride in that. We also have to be mentally ready for every game.”

Hixon looks back on the regular season now and is thrilled with how far his team has come. He hopes it has an opportunity to play several more games.

He wouldn’t mind the interview continuing either. The end of it means it’s snowblower time. He jokingly asks if the writer has any more questions and then reflects on the season so far.

“It’s been a blast coaching these guys. If someone had said Nov. 1, that we would win 20 games I would have taken it to the bank and closed it down. “We know every game at this point is a gift.”

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