ATLANTA (AP) — When Drury seemed to be overmatched by Metro State, falling behind by 17 points late in the first half, coach Steve Hesser said he told his players “to get back to being us.”
That plan included getting the ball to leading scorer Alex Hall when the game was on the line.
Hall made two free throws with 22.8 seconds remaining as Drury rallied from the big deficit and beat Metro State 74-73 to win the Division II national championship on Sunday.
“We had a chip on our shoulder after that first half,” Hall said.
“We never stopped. We just kept going.”
Metro State’s Mitch McCarron missed a last-chance jumper. Time ran out before Brandon Jefferson could attempt a follow shot, which also was off target.
As Metro State coach Derrick Clark slammed the scorer’s table in frustration, Drury’s players converged in a wild midcourt celebration and soon were covered in confetti at Phillips Arena.
Drury (31-4), from Springfield, Mo., closed the season with 23 straight wins to earn its first championship. The postgame celebration seemed an unlikely dream when the Panthers were struggling with first-half turnovers and Metro State was dominating the battle for rebounds.
Hesser said he told his players at halftime “We’ve got 20 minutes left. Win, lose or draw, let’s do what you do. Just chip away and get back to being us.”
Hall said Hesser was “beet-red” because Metro State continued to grab offensive rebounds. Hall said that was motivation as he grabbed a missed free throw by Nicholas Kay with 24 seconds remaining. Brandon Jefferson fouled Hall, setting up the go-ahead free throws.
“I was like, oh geez I need to get this,” Hall said. “When I went up, (Jefferson) came up underneath me, and the rest is history.”
Hall led the Panthers with 21 points. He began the night averaging 29.4 points in the postseason, including a season-high 35 points in Drury’s semifinal win over Western Washington.
Brandon Lockhart had 14 and Drake Patterson had 12 for Drury.
Metro State (32-3) had 17 steals but appeared to tire in the closing minutes as it relied on its starters for all its points. Jefferson led the Roadrunners with 19 points. McCarron added 16 points, eight rebounds and seven steals.
“Drury played an outstanding game,” Clark said. “They never accepted that they were down. We jumped on them, we had a great start, and they always made a run, and they played like champions today. We didn’t lose the national championship. Drury won it.”
Drury’s bench outscored Metro State’s 12-0. The lack of depth became a bigger factor when Metro State starting guard Demetrius Miller, who had 14 points, fouled out with 2:09 remaining.
Metro State, from Denver, was denied its third title. It won championships in 2000 and 2002.
Metro State led 39-22 late in the first half but Drury rallied by making nine of its first 12 shots in the second half, finally pulling even at 53-all on a 3-pointer by Lonnie Boga.
Hall’s 3-pointer with 9:31 remaining gave Drury a 59-58 lead — its first advantage since 6-5. Kay had a quick answer with a layup for Metro State, followed by a steal and basket by McCarron.
Metro State led 73-67 before Drury scored the final seven points despite Cameron Adams missing three of four free throws in the final 2:09.
“We’ve got a deep bench, and everyone contributes, and when everyone contributes, it makes everything a lot easier,” Hall said.
Turnovers were a big part of the Panthers’ early problems. Drury had turnovers on its first two possessions, setting the pace for 12 first-half giveaways that set up 19 points for the Roadrunners.
Metro State had only four turnovers in the half that led to only two points for Drury.
The Roadrunners also established an early advantage near the basket. Led by the inside presence of big forward Jonathan Morse (6-8, 245), Metro State had extended possessions set up by its eight offensive rebounds in the first half.
Morse had 14 points and nine rebounds, but the Roadrunners couldn’t stop the Panthers’ comeback.
“Give them credit, they hit a lot of 3s coming down the stretch in the second half,” Morse said. “They converted, got a lot of easy layups. There were some defensive mistakes on our part, but give them credit. They converted. We didn’t.”
Metro State used a 9-0 run, capped by a steal and jam by McCarron, to take its big lead at 39-22.
The announced attendance at Philips Arena was 7,763. There was no charge for tickets.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.