|Jeff Gamber and his team
celebrated winning the CAC title on Mary Washington's home floor.
Each win extends Gamber's coaching career.
York (Pa.) athletics photo
As the York (Pa.) men's basketball team went about delivering a most unlikely Capital Athletic Conference title last weekend, Jeff Gamber never played the card of his pending retirement to inspire his squad, even if it was the easiest and most effective now-or-never pregame speech he could have delivered.
Regardless of what happens against Friday night's NCAA first-round opponent, No. 9 Franklin and Marshall on the mighty Diplomats' home floor, the Spartans are authoring a memorable final chapter of Gamber's sideline career. Although they are only 18-10 — three of the wins came during the CAC tourney run — they are what makes March Madness so compelling and inspiring:
A Cinderella team finding its way before midnight strikes this season.
And, in York's case, the 36-year career of its legendary bench boss.
“A lot of people have asked and it's certainly on my mind, when's my last game,” Gamber said. “I'm sure the guys think of that. But at this time of the year, you don't need additional things to get you motivated. If you're approach the game the right way and play the right way, you have all the motivation (you need) because it's an important game.
“The guys have jelled together. They've competed hard all year. I think those are the reasons, not because this old guy is getting ready to leave town.”
Gamber gathered his team in October and told them he planned to call it quits, no matter the course his team charted this season. He explained his desire to spend more time with his wife, Donna, and their grandchildren, and how it outweighed his desire to continue trying to match previous successes, including York's run to the 2005 Final Four.
Paul Kouvaris sensed Gamber's announcement was an inevitability — especially seeing that the coach's son, Dean, inherited more and more responsibilities. So when the announcement hit the air, the CAC Player of the Year and his teammates turned within and challenged each other.
“We said let's just go out with a win, for him and for us,” said Kouvaris, a 6-5 forward who is averaging 16.9 points and 6.5 rebounds while hitting 55.3% of his shots.
This run seemed all so unlikely when the Spartans started off 7-7, but Gamber saw an unselfish squad roster who could peak later in his last season. Through 36 seasons, if anyone knew the importance of finishing with a flourish versus starting strong, it was certainly York's bench boss.
And sure enough, the Spartans pulled off back-to-back breathtaking victories in the CAC tourney. After using a game-ending, 12-0 spurt highlighted by Julian Watson's go-ahead trey with 16 ticks left subdued Frostburg State by a 65-61 final score in the first round, Watson canned a go-ahead jumper with 31 seconds remaining as York struck down top-seeded St. Mary's (Md.), 61-58, in the semifinals.
|Jeff Gamber is retiring to
spend more time with his wife, Donna, a cancer
York (Pa.) athletics photo
In the championship game, the Spartans asserted control over the final 6:30 after Mary Washington crept to within 44-43, as five different players converted at the charity stripe, where they scored 10 of their last 15 points en route to a 59-51 triumph — and the opportunity to extend Gamber's sideline tenure at least another 40 minutes this Friday night.
“I was actually talking to my parents about this the other day,” Kouvaris said. “It's like the end to a perfect story.”
An ending the Spartans keep extending. If York is one of the most unlikely teams to earn entry into the field of 62, it is certainly a resilient underdog relishing its first March Madness exposure since the Spartans advanced to the 2005 Final Four.
Although Franklin and Marshall is 25-2 and coached by a fellow legend in Glenn Robinson, Division III's all-time leader with 830 triumphs, York has defied the odds, skeptics, and records already. Now the Spartans are looking to add on to their retiring coach's legacy.
“I certainly wouldn't sell these kids of mine short on anything,” Gamber said. “They believe it's how good you play and not how good you are. So we need to go out and play good.”
Babson women on the road again
Despite a 55-3 record over the last two seasons, four consecutive NEWMAC crowns and a No. 13 ranking in the D3hoops.com Top 25, the Babson women find themselves facing a familiar hurdle en route to their hopeful goal of reaching the Final Four.
Just like their previous three trips to the NCAA Tournament, the Beavers will board a bus, beginning with Friday night's first-round game against Bridgewater State, which will be played on the homecourt of perennial postseason nemesis Amherst.
However, if senior forwards Kathleen King and Nicole Wurdeman are bothered by the latest oversight, they are hiding it awfully well hours before their final March Madness experience.
Without flinching, King said, “I think more so we were hung up on it last year.”
Added Wurdeman, the three-time NEWMAC Player of the Year and Babson's first 2,000-point scorer: “We'll take whatever we're given. We're just excited to be in the tournament.”
Babson's inclusion in the field of 64 was a given, considering its lone losses came against NCAA qualifier Southern Maine and a 19-win Williams squad that missed out on an at-large invite. More than just their tournament history that includes being 30-0 before bowing against eventual national champion Amherst in the Elite Eight, the Beavers have a trio of 1,000-point scorers in their frontcourt in Wurdeman (2,002), King (1,754), and junior center Sarah Collins (1,131).
Of them, King also has 1,000 rebounds while Wurdeman has snagged 994.
However, provided Babson does the expected and dispatches of Bridgewater State in Friday's first round, Amherst will likely await for the fourth-straight season. Before losing to the Lord Jeffs in the previous two Elite Eights, the Beavers bowed against their nemesis in the 2009 first round.
All of the losses came by at least 15 points, but King, Wurdeman and their teammates are hopeful this season provides a different — and happy — ending.
“We're think about it that to be the best,” Wurdeman said, “you have to beat the best.”
Carroll's rally to win Midwest crown
Minutes after overcoming Illinois College in Carroll's regular-season finale Feb. 18, Kyle Jones and most of his teammates retreated to the film room located in the Van Male Field House basement to root against Ripon — the Pioneers' last hope for reaching the Midwest Conference tournament and extending their season.
When Ripon got bounced from postseason contention by Beloit, Carroll earned an unlikely invite into the Midwest's field of four, considering it needed a combination of two victories and two losses by its rival just to play a second season.
“We thought if we could get into that tournament, anything could happen,” said Jones, a senior guard.
Of course, by now you probably realize why we are mentioning Jones and his Pioneers: They completed an impressive sprint through their conference semifinals and finals, capped by a shockingly one-sided 87-65 victory over St. Norbert, and enter Friday night's first-round game at No. 16 Transylvania as one of the Division III NCAA Tournament's most intriguing underdogs.
“The really intriguing thing to me was the guys didn't have that sense of 'We're just happy to be here,' third-year coach David Buchanan said. “You could see it in their eyes and in their talk they're not satisfied.”
Indeed, nothing seems to phase the Pioneers these days, considering they have found themselves 40 minutes from elimination since Feb. 15, when a Kevin Hurd off-balanced buzzer beater in a 67-65 victory over Beloit — combined with a shocking Lawrence triumph over Ripon — made the regular-season finale against Illinois just to win the Midwest's fourth-seed by tiebreaker despite having just a 10-8 conference record.
Once Carroll earned its way into Midwest tourney, Buchanan reminded his roster that the St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series and the New York Giants celebrated winning a Super Bowl despite making their respective playoffs by winning their final regular-season game. His pregame speeches cut to the quick:
“It's not about records at this point. It's about who's playing well.”
Despite a young roster, the Pioneers have become surprisingly proficient in winning white-knuckle games — a welcomed development displayed during their final two regular-season games and a 77-70 Midwest semifinal victory over top-seeded Lake Forest.
More than just Jones' (11.1 ppg) consistency, and the sophomore inside-outside tandem of 6-7 Alex Molter (14.3 ppg, 8.4 rpg) and Kevin Hurd (11.8 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 3.5 apg), 6-4 junior Dan Kratz (8.7 ppg) scored 24 points in the regular-season finale against Illinois and averaged 19.0 tallies in the two conference tournament contests, helping the Pioneers earn their first NCAA invite since 2007.
“This is the first time I've been in the NCAA Tournament,” Jones said. “It's really, really exciting to live this dream and be able to play in the big tournament. It's something I'll soak in and be able to remember for the rest of my life.”