Barton Revels in Spotlight After Division II Championship
Media requests swamp thankful DII champs
March 30, 2007
WILSON, N.C. (AP) - Ron Lievense hung up his phone after yet another interview. Finally, he could ease back in his chair and reflect on Barton College's improbable national championship.
Then his cell phone started ringing.
"This is how it's been all day," the coach said Tuesday, three days after the school won its first NCAA Division II title.
This March, Barton isn't hiding in the shadows cast by nearby Atlantic Coast Conference powers Duke and North Carolina. The Blue Devils and Tar Heels ended their seasons with a loss. Not Barton, which pulled off a miracle comeback to win an NCAA championship in a sequence replayed countless times on television and the Internet.
The star of those highlights, Anthony Atkinson, is looking tired after going from interview to victory party to interview - his reward for scoring 10 points in the final minute and hitting the buzzer-beating layup to win. Lievense's legal pad is two-pages full of phone messages he has yet to return, while his e-mail inbox is hopelessly backed up.
Overwhelming? Absolutely - and the Bulldogs are cherishing every second.
"We've had a lot of people saying, 'When will the movie of this be made?"' Barton athletic director Gary Hall said. "It's almost a bad Disney movie. You couldn't write a script where one guy scores 10 points in 38 seconds to win a national championship. The thought was that if you write that, people wouldn't believe it. But we saw it."
Indeed, it seemed improbable that the Bulldogs (31-5) could rally from seven down with 45 seconds left against a Winona State team on a two-year, 57-game winning streak. But Barton found a way, tying the game on Atkinson's layup with 7 seconds left then winning when Bobby Buffaloe stole the ball at midcourt on the ensuing possession and passed to Atkinson, who drove for a layup that barely beat the horn.
In the seconds following the 77-75 victory, Atkinson sprinted around the court holding his head in disbelief while teammates chased him the entire way.
Atkinson's performance followed playoff games in which he hit a long 3-pointer at the horn to beat Grand Valley State 83-81 in overtime and hit a free throw with 1.5 seconds left to beat Cal State San Bernardino 80-79 in the semifinals.
Before Barton's win, the biggest sports story in Wilson was the three straight football state championships won by Carlester Crumpler-led Fike High School from 1967-69. But as Atkinson recently said during a radio interview, "We're bigger than the Beatles right now."
"Now everybody knows about Wilson County," said Atkinson, who also grew up and played in high school here. "Normally everybody will be like, 'Barton? Where's Barton? Wilson? Where's Wilson at?' And now you hear people on 'SportsCenter' saying 'Barton College out of Wilson, North Carolina.' We kind of put it on the map."
The Bulldogs are certainly basking in their title glow. People recognized them in airports in Providence, R.I., and Philadelphia. Their fans lined U.S. 264 to greet their bus as they returned to Wilson on Sunday, then 2,500 showed up for Monday's campus celebration. There are only about 1,300 students at the school.
Days later, congratulatory signs still dot this city of nearly 50,000 located about 50 miles east of Raleigh. That includes championship banners hanging from Wilson Gymnasium and on a nearby dormitory, as well as newly placed signs pronouncing the campus street running between them "Championship Drive."
"It's a once-in-a-lifetime thing," senior forward Alejo Barovero said. "We're just trying to enjoy it while it lasts."
The title run has upped the pressure on Dick's Hot Dog Stand, just a short drive from the Barton campus. Filled with sports memorabilia and photos, the restaurant has been a community institution for decades. Lee Gliarmis, whose family has owned Dick's since it opened in 1921, now must find room to put up a photo commemorating this year's Barton team.
"I've definitely got to get this year's team in there," said the 79-year-old, a lifelong Wilson resident. "Everybody who comes in wants to know where it's at."
The players, meanwhile, have become local celebrities. Atkinson says he heard whispers of "That's him, that's him" from waitresses at a restaurant. Buffaloe now has people shouting his name as he rides his bicycle, while Barovero remembers the children riding their bikes alongside the team bus as it returned to campus.
The team is currently working out details of a visit with Gov. Mike Easley and the state House and Senate next week in Raleigh.
And while things will eventually calm down, it'll be a long time before anyone in Wilson can forget this title.
"I'm telling everybody I'll never probably experience anything like this ever again in my life," senior forward Mark Friscone said. "It's a great feeling. I can't concentrate on anything except for basketball right now."