Looking back at the 2004 Final Four

By Pat Cummings
D3sports.com

For the staff of D3hoops.com, a weekend in Salem is fun. Drive 450 miles, observe practices, enjoy the Roanoke nightlife, sleep, arrive at the Salem Civic Center eight hours before the semifinals, ensure the elaborate technology is working, interview coaches, broadcast the games, write the stories, take the pictures, enjoy the Roanoke nightlife, sleep, repeat. Two hours after the national championship, we are on the verge of collapse.

The skinny from Salem

Most outstanding player: The NCAA requires the media to turn in their ballots with five minutes remaining in the championship game. Granted, Jason Kalsow made the game-winning shot, but the Pointers don’t get there without Nick Bennett. After 20 points against John Carroll, Bennett suffered a severe knee bruise. All Bennett did was come out the next afternoon and dropped 30 points on 12-of-19 shooting while playing 38 minutes, 18 hours after being carried off the court by his teammates. Outstanding indeed.

Most valuable player: Michael Crotty, leadership in the first degree. Like a movie director, Crotty guided the Ephs every second he was on the court. Without his touch, the Ephs don’t get back to the championship game. 21 points against Williams and 15 points with 11 assists against the Pointers, Crotty will pursue some additional PT as he looks to Europe. JCU’s Jerry Angel and David Gibbons were spectacular, even in defeat, against UWSP and were lethal for John Carroll as they took home the third-place trophy.

Most media friendly: All four teams. Coaches Hixon, Moran, Paulsen, and Bennett availed themselves to every interview request, even if it meant stopping in the middle of a hallway, or finding a quiet space under the Salem Civic Center stands. Some other levels of athletics should take a page out of the playbook of these coaches. Coverage is a good thing. D3hoops.com can’t bring you all the features and interviews during broadcasts if the schools and coaches do not cooperate. Their behavior enhanced the experience of all listening online.

Best play: You know the one.

For the love of the game: Coaches from all over the country flooded southwestern Virginia. As one told me Friday night: “I go to the D-I Final Four every year. That doesn’t hold a stick to the game I just saw (Williams/Amherst). You can’t beat this atmosphere.”

Best sportsmanship moment: Those Amherst that fans hung around and cheered on their NESCAC brethren in the championship. John Carroll’s crew, including their band, rallied the Pointers faithful. There are benefits to the consolation game, as fans from each of the schools remain in town. It all leads to a great atmosphere on Saturday. Everyone leaves Salem with a greater appreciation for Division III.

Worth the time and money: If you haven’t been to Salem, for either a football championship or a basketball championship, get there. The Roanoke area is picturesque, the hospitality superb, the hotels, bars, and restaurants affordable and enjoyable. Add to this the experience the city of Salem and the Old Dominion Athletic Conference have in running the Final Four and it results in a tremendous weekend. While it isn’t clear for how long Salem will remain the host of these championships, there is no denying the tremendous success they have had in running these events. We always look forward to going back.

A Jason Kalsow jumper with time running out revived our senses, leaving just one of many memories from the weekend.

Williams/Amherst
The rivalry is intense. The fans are intense. But this is not the “we hate you no matter what” matchup I was anticipating. Both squads have a mutual respect for each other. Set plays go out the window. Amherst knows Williams and vice versa; the result is basketball in its purest form.

In the postgame news conferences, players refer to their opponents by name, as if they are long lost friends who battled together. Sure, the fans razz each other. But all in all, Amherst/Williams is a must see for any basketball fan. Their meeting in Salem brought a special twist to this year’s Final Four.

The beauty of a game between Amherst and Williams is that no matter where it is played, under what conditions, pride hangs on the line. For that, the viewer is guaranteed some classic basketball.

As Williams coach Dave Paulsen glowed after his team’s victory, “I’m glad people from outside Massachusetts got a chance to see just how special this rivalry is.” I agree.

John Carroll
Mike Moran’s squad is unique. With substitutions resembling line shifts at a Columbus Blue Jackets game, the Blue Streaks typically rotate 12 players, engaging in an up-tempo offense and a strangling press. The Pointers took about ten minutes to figure out the press and used a tall backcourt to literally, pass over the smaller JCU guards.

JCU did break the jinx that seemed to haunt the OAC: The preseason conference selection actually won the OAC tournament. Beyond that, the eighth-seeded Blue Streaks created a buzz for even making it to Salem after knocking out 2000 champions Calvin, then top-seeded Wittenberg and sectional host, Wooster.

It seemed as though the long road to Salem may have taken its toll on the Blue Streaks who defied the odds to get there.

Seniors David Gibbons and Jerry Angel impressed those in attendance in Salem and will be sorely missed, along with four other graduating players. But the future is still bright for JCU who returns high-flying freshman Brandon Mimes and junior Michael Grogan.

Kudos to the fans from JCU for a solid turnout and their much enjoyed pep band.

UW-Stevens Point
After the first semi between Amherst and Williams, the general sentiment around the arena went like this: “There’s another game?” and “Who’s wearing those florescent yellow warmups?” The answers, of course, were “yes” and “Stevens Point.”

Jack Bennett energized just about anyone he talked to in Salem, even coddling up to the old Hoopsville crew and Final Four broadcasters, Dave McHugh and Jared Rosenbaum. As Dave and Jared sat along press row, observing the Pointers’ Thursday practice, Bennett just strolled over and took up conversation with the two.

The Pointers fans had the longest road to travel, especially after about one hundred of them made it to the sectionals at Puget Sound. Combine an appearance in the women’s Final Four, and the women’s Frozen Four for ice hockey, and many Point faithful had a tough decision to make. Those who chose to travel to Salem went home the happiest.

Jack and Nick Bennett weren’t the only coach-son combo in Salem as Matt and Pete Moran joined their father with John Carroll. While the two Bennetts seem to have a tumultuous relationship on the court (as the both admitted after their win against Williams), their championship performance was a story made for the movies.

When asked about their youth and the promise of a new season with all but one player (Neal Krajnik) returning, the Pointers were quick to acknowledge the need to stay on the ball.

“I said to my team, ‘we need to take advantage of this opportunity now,’ cause another team we played, Gustavus Adolphus, was in the same situation. They didn’t make it back.” The Golden Gusties made it to the national championship game in 2003 and lost to Williams by two. Losing only three seniors and retaining the core of their squad, GAC seemed poised for another run to Salem, only to lose in the second-round this year to the Pointers.

UW-Stevens Point will face that situation now.