Jackets make sure there was no upset
|Randolph-Macon won it all, with authority.
Photo by Doug Sasse, d3photography.com
By Riley Zayas
Managing Editor, True to the Cru
FORT WAYNE, Indiana – March is known as the time of upsets. The point in the year when 64 teams all enter a three-week tournament with a chance to win it all.
The favorite entering a matchup in March is not always the one who emerges victorious. But not in 2022.
Randolph-Macon had waited far too long for this opportunity. Far too long for the chance to finally back up its No. 1 national ranking with a national title. For two seasons, the Yellow Jackets had toiled away, winning a number of quality games – No. 13 Emory, no. 3 Marietta, no. 13 WPI in this season alone – yet never seen those seasons truly end.
But not in 2022.
There would be an ending. Fort Wayne was the location. Elmhurst the opponent.
And on D-III basketball’s grandest stage, inside a spacious arena, R-MC’s season ended just the way the Yellow Jackets had imagined it: hoisting the national championship trophy after a 75-45 victory.
“We’ve looked at every game as if we were the underdog,” R-MC coach Josh Merkel said in a postgame. “The ranking didn’t mean anything to us. We would find a chip or something that was the reason why we were not the favorite. So we approached it just like we hadn’t won anything. We were the underdog. ”
Nobody in the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum would have labeled the Yellow Jackets as an underdog on Saturday night. They dominated in every facet of the game. Over the course of five tournament games, R-MC had won by an average of 25 points per game. Against Elmhurst, they won by 30. They left no doubt, nothing to chance, in the biggest of the season. The biggest game of the last three seasons.
“I think a lot of guys on our team had to relearn,‘ How do we do it at the top? ’,” Anthony said. “I’m really proud of that. I don’t think a lot of people know how hard it is every night to come out have that. ”
Throughout the season, the consensus No. 1 ranked team had faced its share of competitive competition. Yet there was never a point when the moment became too big. Against Marietta in November, the Yellow Jackets won 82-74. Against the Pioneers on Friday night in a national semifinal, they won by even more, in an 81-63 victory. Even against an Elmhurst team that had no shortage of offensive production in Friday’s duel with Wabash, the effects of R-MC’s aggressive, intense zone defense were evident.
“They’re good, flat out,” Elmhurst head coach John Baines said. “I don’t think we played our best, but a lot of the credit goes to them for making us do that.”
Such was the strength of the Yellow Jackets. Not only this year, but for the last three. There was something special about this squad and Merkel saw it on day one.
It was that sense, that feeling of immense talent, a one-in-a-decade group perhaps, that spurred Buzz Anthony back for a fifth season. There was unfinished work left to accomplish. And Anthony’s collegiate career would not conclude without that milestone of a victory.
“I know a lot of guys who have done that fifth year, and in Division III, it’s more of a sacrifice,” Anthony said in the postgame. “It was really cool to be mature, and be able to really experience the moment.”
The Yellow Jackets made sure that victory happened on Saturday night. There was not any kind of letup. Anytime Elmhurst put the ball through the net, R-MC made sure to counter that with points of its own. Aside from a 7-0 that took an 18-17 lead with eight minutes left in the first half, Elmhurst never managed a spurt that did not include Yellow Jacket points along with it. With five minutes to go, the lead was 24, 66-42. Anthony could feel it.
With 1:21 left, Anthony finally realized it. From the right wing, he put up the final shot of his collegiate career. Nothing but net. Instantly, he knew. The extra year had paid off. The hours of preparation put in for this moment over the last several seasons, even through two years of NCAA Tournament cancellations, had paid off. He went to midcourt, a smile wide across his face, and hugged Miles Mallory. The crowd, clad in yellow and black, rose to their feet and cheered as he, Josh Talbert, and DaQuan Morris exited the game for the final time this season, and for Anthony, the final time in his career.
“It was about the four-minute mark, and Mbangue was shooting free throws,” Anthony said. “I caught eyes with my parents and my wife in the stands and I started smiling ear-to-ear. But I think still, we’re programmed a lot, talking defensively. It wasn’t until that last shot that it really let loose. ”
For three consecutive years in March, R-MC lived in the present tense. The Yellow Jackets were living in the longest tournament run, one which started in March of 2020, but was unable to be completed until Saturday night. It took a minute for it to sink in, that they had actually won the national title, and were no longer focused on winning a national title, for this season at least.
“As we got our talent, and kept getting better and better, it was like fighting to the ceiling,” Anthony said. “Each big game was a test we had to figure out. Then it was living with the No. 1 ranking, and relearning [a new role]. ”
Baines, though on the losing end, had a similar perspective to the idea of finally getting a chance to close out the season.
“I’ve been doing this for 20-some years,” Baines said during the summer. “It’s really hard to get a good team, to get them playing at their best at the end of the year, to stay healthy. That was disappointing for me personally. You work really hard to get to that point and you don’t get to finish it. ”
Both squads got to finish it in Fort Wayne this year, an opportunity neither would trade after watching their tournament runs end abruptly in 2020.
“There was no closure back then,” Baines said of 2020. “You said, ‘What could we have done?’ We were hot. We were playing well. To get back to this spot, for me, I’m glad these guys got that. ”
For Randolph-Macon, it was a similar feeling. And Anthony believes the best is still to come for this program.
“Going into the game, I grabbed some of my juniors and said, ‘Hey, these people in Fort Wayne, I want you to make an impression. Y’all are going to be back here next year.’ Wherever we go we want to leave an impression. ”
Whether the teams from the past two years, who finished the season without a NCAA Tournament, would have reached this point, and captured a national title is a question that will never be answered. But on Saturday night, with an opportunity presented, R-MC’s hunger for a victory of this caliber was showcased for a full 40 minutes.
“We talked about having a hunger,” Merkel said. “This group, we never felt like we had done anything. The ranking didn’t matter to us. And I think our approach and how we played showed. ”