Johns Hopkins riding high, hitting the road

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Keene State and Skidmore couldn't touch Jimmy Hammer in his first two NCAA Tournament games.
Johns Hopkins athletics photo

By Rob Knox

BALTIMORE – Nothing could erase the wide smile off of Johns Hopkins senior guard Jimmy Hammer’s face following Saturday’s thrilling 61-58 victory over Skidmore in a NCAA Division III second round memory-maker at Goldfarb Gym.

After all, when you’ve escaped a celebratory gaggle of excited students dressed in various costumes like a banana, hot dog and more at center court, scored a team-high 16 points, helped your team win a school-record 25th game, advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time in a quarter-century ... and have a job lined up after graduation, you’d be happier than Pharrell.

“It’s amazing,” Hammer said when asked to describe the Blue Jays’ season so far. “We broke the school record for wins in a season and it’s the first time in the Sweet 16 in a while. It’s just a dream come true for me. I am living the life and on top of the world now.”

Even during his postgame interview as Hammer stood barefooted with taped ankles at the foul line, a line of well-wishers continued to congratulate him as he answered several questions. Of course, he acknowledged them with a smile, head nod, high-five and handshake.

With his affable personality, Hammer could be the unofficial mayor of Johns Hopkins.

The Collegeville, Pa., native is looking forward to the Blue Jays’ impending business trip to Boston where they will meet fourth-ranked Babson (27-2 overall) in a sectional Friday night at 7:30 p.m. Trinity College (22-6), which won the New England Small College Athletic Conference regular season crown, will take on Bates College (21-6) in the other Round of 16 matchup at 5:30 p.m.

The winners of Friday's games will meet on Saturday night at 7 p.m. with a berth to the Final Four in Salem, Va., on the line. Johns Hopkins is one of two Centennial Conference teams still alive in the Division III NCAA Tournament. Tenth-ranked Dickinson will meet ninth-ranked Virginia Wesleyan at Randolph-Macon in a Friday night sectional.

“Advancing to the Sweet 16 means a lot to our program,” veteran Johns Hopkins coach Bill Nelson said. “It wasn’t that long ago when we won seven games. This is a special group. We’ve got 10 juniors and seniors and their leadership helps pulls us through games like this.”

Hammer is having a blast being the conductor of a fun, balanced and selfless squad that enjoys being around each other. He has enjoyed a strong career for Johns Hopkins in which he holds two school records: career three-point field goals (242) and career three-point attempts (612). Hammer also ranks in the top 20 in school history in 11 categories and the top 10 in eight categories, including points (1,328).

In addition, the Johns Hopkins co-captain leads team in points (15.3), free throw percentage (.847), free throws made (94). He’s second on team in field goals (139), three point field goals (72), three point field goal attempts (179), free throw attempts (111), assists (73) and minutes played (924).

With a last name like Hammer, he has literally dropped it in two games of the NCAA Tournament, averaging 22.5 points in wins over Keene State and Skidmore. Whenever he performs well and takes over a game, which has been a standard operating procedure for him, fans affectionately serenade him.

“Every now and then, they’ll say a little ‘Hammer time,’ ” Hammer said with a smile. “Everybody has loved my last name. Basketball has been in my family and it’s in my blood. I’ve been in love with the sport ever since I’ve started playing.”

Fortunately for Hammer, being around his dad Craig, who played basketball at Rider, has helped him live up to his last name. Hammer has been playing basketball since he was 4 years old. He’s just continuing a family tradition because his grandfather played as well.

In an era of me-first players, Hammer is a refreshing change, as he’s unselfish and makes sure to always spread the love.

That balance has been a critical component to the Blue Jays success this year. While Hammer was dropping 29 points against Keene State, his running mate senior Jostens Award finalist George Bugarinovic added 26 points in the 95-78 victory.

Consider that duo the Arm & Hammer of the Centennial Conference, since Bugarinovic has biceps like Hulk Hogan. Or as Nelson, puts it, “Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside.”

The following night in the win over Skidmore, Gene Williams, Hammer and Curran combined for 42 of the Blue Jays’ 61 points. Bugarinovic grabbed 10 rebounds. Hammer, Curran, and Bugarinovic were selected to the All-Centennial team.

“We’re all very selfless and we play for each other,” Hammer said. “We’re always looking for each other on the offensive end and we know who to get the ball to in certain situations. Our defense is very good and that’s been huge for us. We all play for each other. We’re very deep and everybody does their part. That’s has carried us through the Sweet 16.”

Hammer joined the Blue Jays program at one of their lowest points, coming off of a seven-win season. Since his arrival along with Bugarinovic, Omar Randall and Luke Chambers, Hopkins has won at least 15 games every year. Last season, the Blue Jays lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to Virginia Wesleyan after winning the Centennial Conference postseason tournament.

That season-ending setback fueled Hammer’s fire for this season.

He ended last season in a shooting slump, mostly caused by possible fatigue of a long season. Hammer was also easier to defend because he preferred to hang out on the perimeter and wasn’t much of a threat to drive the ball.

Hammer did something about this summer. He spent plenty of his free time, getting stronger and becoming comfortable attacking the basket. He can still stroke it from deep as well. The hard work paid off for Hammer, who has led the Blue Jays in scoring 16 times this season.

Against Skidmore, Hammer aggressively attacked the basket and showed off his feathery shooting touch from deep.

“It’s really something special to watch a guy continue to improve in so many aspects of his life,” Nelson said. “He’s a strong student in the classroom and on the court he’s turned into one of our better defensive players. We put him on most nights on the best offensive player on the opposing team. Jimmy does a great job of shutting him down. This year, he’s getting to the foul line much more and by him taking the ball the basket, it has freed him up more on the perimeter. He’s had so many clutch games this year like George. Those two guys willed us through (the Skidmore) game.”

Hammer has attempted 20 foul shots in two NCAA Tournament games for the Blue Jays.

The two-time CoSIDA Academic All-District has his future job lined up. After graduation, the huge Philadelphia sports fan is going to work for Lincoln Financial Group where he will begin a two-year leadership prep program. Off the court, he relaxes by hanging with friends and watching “House of Cards” and “Breaking Bad.”

While his long-term plans are solidified, Hammer is focused on the immediate future of helping Johns Hopkins continue its magical season. The Blue Jays have the tools to keep playing. They allow 60.2 points per game and are 9-1on the road this season.

“As long as we’re playing, I’ll go anywhere,” Hammer said. “Being here at Johns Hopkins has been a terrific experience for me. This is the best team I’ve been a part of and something I will never forget.”