March 22, 2007
By Christopher Granozio
Special to CSTV.com
Just one day after nailing the winning 3-pointer at the buzzer vs. Grand Valley State in his team's NCAA-record ninth overtime win of the year, the All-American once again carried his club down the stretch, advancing the tiny North Carolina school to its first-ever national championship game.
"Each step is a bigger step at this level," coach Ron Lievense said after the victory. "Our guys played with incredible heart, like they've shown all year."
The game was another barnburner, featuring 10 ties, 16 lead changes and neither side opening up more than a three-point spread over the final 6:39. With the score tied at 79-79 and the Coyotes (26-6) playing for the win, senior guard Geoffrey Clayton came off a high pick-and-roll, but missed a contested shot off the right blocks. Atkinson pounced on the loose ball in the lane with five seconds left and took over once more.
"The first thing I did was look at the clock," Atkinson, who had 19 points, said. "I saw their big man sprint back and he wasn't going to beat me. He was either going to foul me or I was going to get a lay-up... I was going to the hoop. There wasn't going to be any pull-up."
Atkinson made the first of two at the line but unintentionally missed the second, as
Senior swingman Alejo Barovero led all scorers with 22 points for the victors, who also received 19 points from sophomore sharpshooter Bobby Buffaloe (6-of-7 FG, including 3-of-3 from three).
Barton turned the ball over 18 times against the nation's top steals team but won the battle of the backboards, 30-19 and outscored the Coyotes, 23-13 from the stripe to remain close.
Coyotes Coach Jeff Oliver was disappointed in his team's final possession, giving credit to Barton's pressure defense for forcing the action: "We ran it too early. If we had run that play two seconds later, we would have been in overtime."
Senior center Ivan Johnson scored 19 points to lead Cal State San Bernardino, which opened the second half sizzling hot, converting its first nine shots (five from downtown) to flip a 37-33 halftime deficit into a 56-49 advantage. But the Bulldogs scored enough to withstand the spell, as both clubs shot nearly 60% from the floor and combined to go 17-for-36 from beyond the arc.
"We really thought we were going to win a national championship," senior forward Yoseph Yaisrael said after his 12-point outing. "In a few weeks I'll look back on this but it will still be hard."
A large cheering section comprised mainly of parishioners from Lievense's church have used the rally cry "we believe" at every game since last year's postseason run. And the Bulldogs are a faithful bunch.
"When you hear that, something builds up in you," Atkinson said. "It just gets us motivated. Belief is what our whole season is based on. We pray every day, and our coach prays during games. I do devotion every morning. God is using me for basketball."
The team's on-court demeanor is consistent with the team's strong devotion.
"There are more important things going on, and after this (tournament), you still have to live life," Atkinson said. "We don't come here and boast or brag... just being humble is the key. We just live day by day."
With all the overtime victories and a team that believes in itself as well as a higher power, one has to wonder if divine intervention is playing a role in this remarkable run.
God only knows.