“We’re going to Atlanta.”
It was the simple answer from Coach Steve Hesser when asked about his post-game thoughts, and really it was all the explanation necessary.
His Drury Panthers are headed to next weekend’s NCAA-II National Championship game after defeating defending national champion Western Washington 107-97 in the national semifinals Saturday afternoon at Freedom Hall.
The seventh-ranked Panthers improved to 30-4 with their school-record 22nd consecutive victory, and sent No. 4 Western Washington home with a 31-3 final mark, thanks to a season-high 35 points from senior guard Alex Hall and one final defensive stand in the final five minutes to shake off a fierce Warriors rally.
As a result, Drury will take on third-ranked Metro State (32-2), which knocked off top-ranked West Liberty 83-76 in the first semifinal, in next Sunday’s nationally-televised title game in Philips Arena in Atlanta, Ga. Tipoff wil be at 3 p.m. (CST), and – with it being part of the NCAA’s Final Four weekend for the Division I teams – admission is free.
Drury also avenged a 72-69 loss to Western Washington on Dec. 18 in Las Vegas by jumping on the Warriors early and often. With Hall hitting his first four 3-point tries in the game’s first 2 minutes and 52 seconds in racing to a 14-6 lead.
“We came into this game super-focused … I hit a couple in a row, and my teammates did a great job of finding me for the next two, so give them credit,” Hall said.
Western eventually cut it to three (27-24) with seven minutes to go, but Drury used another flurry to get the lead back to 11 (40-29) on a layup by Hall with 4:11 left in the half. However, Hall was called for his third foul on the play, a major cause for concern after the senior sharpshooter had scored 23 of DU’s first 40 points.
The Panthers alleviated those concerns by outscoring the Warriors 10-3 without Hall the remainder of the half to take a 50-32 lead into the intermission.
“I thought we got off to a great start … we really dug down and defended them,” Hesser said. “That was one of our pre-game goals. Western Washington obviously is an outstanding team with a lot of tradition … had the lead at halftime, they came out, and you knew they were going to make a run at us, and they did.”
Drury would push that advantage to a game-high 24 points (71-47) with just under 14 minutes left before Western Washington would make its last big surge. And it came in a hurry.
The Warriors had it down to seven (83-76) with 5:48 remaining after Cameron Severson’s layup, and appeared to be in a position to fully seize momentum when DU senior point guard Brandon Lockhart was whistled for a technical after being called for a foul on a steal attempt with 4:48 to go. WWU made three of four free throws, and the once huge Drury lead was down to a mere six (85-79).
“We knew they would make a run eventually, but we knew we just had to stay together and not start playing by ourselves,” Lockhart said. “We’d done a good job of that all year … I think we stayed together and got it done down the stretch.”
The Panthers answered with a 12-2 run over the next 2:27 to snag a 97-81 cushion, and made enough free throws down the stretch to seal their first-ever trip to a national title game and second in the program’s long and illustrious history, joining the 1978-79 NAIA national champions in that regard.
“I was proud of our guys because when they made that run, we dug in and made some stops defensively,” Hesser said. “We moved the basketball and got it inside and got some buckets off our press offense.”
Hall hit 10 of 15 shots, including 7 of 10 3-point tries (tying a D-II tournament record), in an effort that fell just one point short of his career high (36). Lockhart added 24 points, including a 13-for-14 effort at the FT line, to go with eight assists, six rebounds and five steals. Ian Carter finished with 19 points and eight rebounds, and Cameron Adams and Teddy Simniok had 12 points each as the Panthers had their highest scoring game of the season.
The Panthers made 30 of 34 free throws (88 percent) and shot 58 percent from the field (34 of 59) while committing just 12 turnovers in the fast-paced game.
Western Washington, which was led by Rico Wilkins’ 27 points off the bench, shot 49 percent from the field (37 of 75). The Warriors outrebounded Drury 37-31, but were hampered by 19 turnovers.
“Congratulations to Drury … that was a great game, and I thought they played very, very well,” WWU coach Tony Dominguez said. “Of all the games we’d watched, I think that might be the best we’d seen them play. I think they’ll do well next weekend.”
“We were not at our best at the beginning, so I fault myself for that. I thought we were pretty prepared. We switch (defensively) on purpose to defend the three, and Alex Hall is an extremely good player. For guys like him, that’s why we switch, and we didn’t do that to start the game. I think when you dig yourself a hole, it’s tough to keep getting back. We just didn’t play our best on defense to start the game, and I think it rattled us.”