It was a wild year leading up to the Augustana men’s basketball team second place finish in the nation.
It was a year of finding niches, reconstruction, restructuring and players stepping up in the numerous points throughout the season.
Coming off from the team that tied the best overall record, 29-2, in Augustana history, many deemed this year would be a rebuilding year for the young Vikings squad that lost most of its starting players.
But the Vikings wanted to prove they were just as strong as their predecessors.
Senior Jacob Johnston, only one of the two seniors on the Vikings squad, said it was tough following in the footsteps of the previous team, but the results of this now past season were very rewarding.
“It was a great feeling to prove people wrong,” Johnston said. “We used that as motivation as nobody said we were going to be good, but we did what we were capable of.”
Finishing the regular season with a 18-7 overall and a 11-5 conference record, the Vikings entered their way into the NCAA Division III Men’s Basketball Tournament from an at-large bid. Although they were in the tournament, their first round game was against the previous Division III men’s basketball champions: the St. Thomas Tommies, who defeated the Vikings last year in the Elite Eight.
But the Vikings brought out stellar performances as they cut down an eight-point lead in 41 seconds to give sophomore Crishawn Orange the ball with 3.7 seconds left in the game to hit a 3-pointer that sealed the Vikings revenge.
This was the first of two buzzer beaters that lifted the Vikings to the Sweet Sixteen as Orange hit a jumper to earn the win against the University of Wisconsin Whitewater, who won the Division III tournament two years ago against the 2014-2015 Vikings squad.
“Those first two games were crazy with those buzzer beaters,” Johnston said.
From then on, the Vikings played and defeated Wartburg College and Hanover College with double digit leads. They then played Williams College in the Final Four, which head coach Grey Giovanine said was one of the best games the team played all season.
“We shot 62% against a great team,” Giovanine said. “I thought that was one of the best segments of basketball we played all year.”
After the 90-79 win over Williams, the Vikings carried their high momentum into the championship game.
“Going into the game, there was a lot of excitement and nerves,” Johnston said. “The game itself was a lot of fun.”
Giovanine said the game was a game of swings. At the 9:26 mark in the first half, the Vikings were ahead 26-16 but then Babson battled back with a 25-5 run to end the first half ahead with 41-31 lead. The second half was a tug of war battle as the Vikings came within range of the Beavers and the Beavers would retaliate to create another buffer between the teams.
Similarly to many of their games this season, the Vikings brought the Beavers within a single possession with 10 seconds left after a huge 3-pointer from Johnston.
After the 3-pointer, sophomore Brett Benning got the rebound off a missed Beaver shot to find sophomore Nolan Ebel for a lay-up that had the chance of winning the tournament.
But the shot was never made.
The lay-up was blocked by the Beavers’ Joey Flannery as he appeared almost out of thin air to knock the ball out of bounds with 1.5 seconds to go. Johnston attempted to pass to Benning, but the pass was swatted away by Babson to end the championship game 79-78 Babson.
It was a bittersweet finish as the Vikings went farther than many thought they would, but were within reach of the championship title.
“When the buzzer went off, it was a tough feeling for sure,” Johnston said. “It hurt that we lost, but it was also a lot of fun.”
Giovanine also mentioned the support of the community was crucial for the Vikings’ success.
“We can’t thank the students, faculty, administration and everyone associated with the college enough,” Giovanine said. “It wasn’t just our team that went to the tournament, it was Augustana and everyone associated with the college.”
Looking at the season from the start to beginning, there were many things Johnston said the team did well.
“I think we got so much better from an individual and collective effort,” he said. “There’s still a lot of potential in these guys.”
Next year, expect the Vikings to be ready and gunning for not only a spot in the Division III tournament, but another shot at the championship.