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January 19, 2004

D3 Hoop Titans Meet In Epic Battle

It was no sellout.  Many students were off campus during the welcome winter interterm.  During halftime, fans and silver-haired alums scattered about to chat and catch up on news of the Patriots-Titans playoff game.  Many milled around watching a pair of four-year-olds try to reach the rim with their full-strength projections – the only halftime entertainment being offered to the crowd of 1400.  As usual at the Amherst College gym, there was no concession stand, and the scratchy music being played was finally, mercifully shut off. 

Welcome to Division III basketball.

This was no ordinary game, however, with no ordinary result.  #1 NCAA ranked Williams College, riding into town with a nation’s best 29-game winning streak (dating back to last year’s loss to Amherst in the same gym) drove out of town sporting a one-game losing streak.  While #5 ranked Amherst’s 78-62 win was somewhat surprising, both teams were undefeated and Amherst had been playing well coming into the contest and usually performs well in its home gym.  Amherst’s margin of victory in its early season wins averaged a whopping 32 points.  But Williams is a different story and provides a formidable challenge for any opponent, let alone its arch-rival Amherst.  After appearing invincible earlier in the year and even notching an upset away win against Division I Holy Cross (yes, that Holy Cross, the defending Patriot League Champion that participated in last year’s Division I NCAA Tournament), defending Division III NCAA champ Williams nearly lost to lowly Wesleyan.  Amherst, perhaps sensing that the talented Ephmen were ripe for an upset, constantly went inside to challenge the Eph big men, something no team has been able to do successfully during the last two seasons.  Coach Dave Hixon’s strategy worked well and may have exposed a weakness and provided a glimmer of hope for other Ephmen opponents.  It helped that Amherst shot a torrid 55% from the floor during the first half while building up a 14-point lead.  After a mini-run by Williams in the third quarter that cut the lead to nine, Amherst coasted in with the solid 16-point win.

For those unfamiliar with Division III level basketball, these are two very good hoop teams with talent culled from around the nation.  A glance at the program shows that 10-0 Amherst draws its roster from no fewer that nine states, with New Jersey being represented by four athletes.  The 11-1 Williams squad, with six home-grown Massachusetts players including its two all-stars, Michael Crotty and Ben Coffin, sports members from eight states.  While both colleges are enthusiastic proponents of the secondary role of athletics in an academic setting, try telling that to the participants or to the many alums and former players who travel hours to witness this celebrated battle of rivals.  Anyone who has played in one of the Amherst-Williams hoop tilts remembers it well.  You lay it all out on the floor and hope that you can live with the result.  This is well-coached, hard-nosed, man-to-man basketball.  Both coaches, Hixon and Paulsen, are former players for their respective teams and continue the heralded tradition of turning out warriors for their colleges’ perennial clashes.

So for now, life is good for the Amherst faithful: a 1-0 edge on Williams and continuation of its unbeaten status.  It’s good at least until January 24, that is, when Amherst travels to Williamstown to take on the Ephmen on their home floor.  That will be one rocking place in bucolic Berkshire County, Massachusetts.  Williams actually has a concession stand and even a short coordinated halftime activity, mostly consisting of clever anti-Amherst chants and slogans from years gone by.  Wasn’t it Lord Jeffrey Amherst who slaughtered the Indians with blankets contaminated with smallpox?  And what kind of basketball is this with teams named Lord Jeffs and Ephmen?  It sure makes for some interesting taunts and victory songs.  I’ve heard it all before, but somehow never get tired of it.  It’s Division III basketball. 

And it’s getting better all the time. 

 

Author Mike Considine, Amherst Class of ’74, played basketball for the Lord Jeffs and was a teammate of Coach Hixon.  Although he has his hands full with a large and active family and a successful law practice in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, the College Athletics Clips management was able to coax him into supplying an article for posting on Clips.  We look forward to the articulate Considine to provide eye-witness coverage of the grudge match on the 24th