FRISCO, Texas A 14-point lead with 14 minutes left put Augustana on the road to its first NCAA Division II men’s basketball championship. Lincoln Memorial, though, made sure the ride had a few rough spots.
But every time the game got close Saturday afternoon at the Dr. Pepper Arena, Augustana made a clutch play that paved the way for its 90-81 victory in front of an energetic crowd.
“I don’t know if there is one word to do it justice, to be honest,” said Augustana senior Alex Richter, “but I am just so happy to be a part of this team and a part of the coaching staff.
“We thank the fans for coming out. Whether it was Tarleton, Western Oregon or today, we felt we were at home. We are extremely happy to be in this situation.”
Augustana, which led the entire second half, finished the season 34-2.
“It really helps when you have three seniors like this,” said Augustana coach Tom Billeter as he looked at Richter, Daniel Jansen and Casey Schilling at the postgame press conference. “To be honest, nothing works if you don’t have the players. I have such a special group. I am so proud of them.”
Richter led the Vikings with 26 points, Jansen scored 25 and Schilling added 20.
Lincoln Memorial also has a special group of players, who carried a 24-game winning streak into the championship game and finished the season 34-3. Four players scored in double figures for the Railsplitters, led by 21 from senior Gerel Simmons and 15 apiece from sophomore Emanuel Terry and senior Jalen Steele.
“We knew we had to play our best game of the season to have a chance,” Lincoln Memorial coach Josh Schertz said. “We missed free throws like we did and shot the ball poorly from the three-point line. Give credit to Augustana because they continued to make shots and plays down the stretch.”
Twice in the opening minute of the second half, Lincoln Memorial closed to two. The last time was at 45-43 on two free throws by Simmons.
“We tried to come out of the half with more energy, and we tried to make a run,” said Simmons, who finished with 21 points. “We made a little run, but they made a run back and that was how it was throughout the whole time.”
Back-to-back baskets by Schilling gave the Vikings a 49-43 lead. Sophomore Jordan Spencer followed with a basket, increasing the lead to 51-43, prompting Schertz to call timeout with 17:20 remaining in the game.
Over the next three minutes, Augustana built its lead to 62-48. It was a position Lincoln Memorial had not been in over the last two months. But the Railsplitters kept battling and got to within six at 69-63 with nearly 9 minutes left.
At this point, the Vikings showed their clutch gene, making plays to maintain a lead of seven to 10 points.
Lincoln Memorial didn’t go away and with under 5 minutes left, the Railsplitters closed to five at 82-77 on field goal by junior Luquon Choice.
Perhaps the biggest basket of the second half came next when Richter drilled a three-pointer, giving Augustana an 85-77 lead.
“We were right in business, a five-point game and 3 minutes to go for a national title,” Schertz said. “That was the biggest shot of the game, Richter’s three-pointer from the corner. They just stepped up and made big shots.”
If it wasn’t for a shoulder injury that forced Richter to sit out the 2013-14 season, he wouldn’t have been on the team this season. He definitely came up big in the championship game. His last three-pointer in a Vikings uniform will be one Richter and many followers of Augustana basketball will remember for a long time.
“That shot is up there,” Billeter said of some of the big baskets made in his 13 years at Augustana. “If he doesn’t hit it and all of a sudden it gets down to two, you don’t know what would happen. That was a huge basket.”
The dagger came with 2:12 left and the Vikings leading 85-78. The shot clock was near zero, when junior Adam Beyer had the ball. He was off-balanced on the baseline, but he managed to put up a fall-away shot that went in, making it 87-78.
“Beyer hits one later with the shot clock expiring and at the same token, we miss a couple of good looks,” Schertz said. “It is simplified, but sometimes it is a game of makes and misses.”
Every point in the championship game is important, so when Schilling knocked down a mid-range jumper at the halftime buzzer to give Augustana a 43-38 lead, the Vikings received a late boost.
It was a nice way for the Vikings to end a half that had several momentum swings. Augustana controlled the early portion of the game, building a 15-6 lead.
“We needed to set the tone because we had such great respect for them defensively,” Billeter said. “They are so long and they really attack. You got three guys coming at you as fast we have ever seen.”
After Jansen’s basket, shots stopped falling for Augustana and the Railsplitters took advantage. They went ahead 18-17 on a basket by Dorian Pinson. Augustana went right back in front on a field goal by Richter.
Pinson tied the game at 23-23 on a three-point play and then Lincoln Memorial went ahead with a basket by Simmons.
Over the next several minutes, the lead changed a few times. At 36-36, Augustana had the last little offensive swing in its advantage, starting with a three-point play from Jansen and a basket by Richter, giving the Vikings a 41-36 lead.
“The difference between last year’s team and this year is last when we were up and a team went on a run, we kind of cracked a little bit,” Jansen said. “I think this year, we showed our maturity as a team as a whole. If a team goes on a run and we have a lead of eight and they cut it to two or one, we are going to stay a tight knit group, and say, they threw their punch, now it is our time to throw our punch.”
The Vikings showed that mentality in all three of their Elite Eight games and that is why they stood Saturday afternoon in Texas as the 2016 NCAA Division II men’s basketball national champions.