It’s March 24, 2007. The Winona State University Warriors, riding a record 57-game winning streak, look poised to defend their NCAA Division II men’s basketball title, as they lead the Barton College Bulldogs 74-67 with just over 45 seconds to play in the 2007 championship tilt.
The game is being played in Springfield, Mass., the birthplace of basketball and home of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame… and Ant Atkinson and his Barton teammates are about to stage a Hall of Fame-worthy comeback for the ages.
Ant makes a driving layup with 39 seconds left. After a missed Warriors’ free throw, Ant races the other way and hits a 12-footer. A quick steal of the inbound pass leads to another layup for Ant, and just like that, the Bulldogs are down only a point with 22 seconds remaining. Barton is forced to foul again, but the Warriors make just one of two free tosses, and Ant makes a stutter-step move and drives for a reverse layup with 8 seconds left to tie the game.
The Warriors frantically move up the court, trying to get off a game-winning shot. Suddenly, the ball is poked away by Barton and passed up the floor to Ant, who quickly peeks at the clock, bolts to the basket and lays the ball through the net as the horn sounds… ball game. It’s pandemonium as Barton wins a 77-75 stunner that becomes a YouTube sensation and runner-up in the “Best Finish” category at the 2007 ESPY Awards.
Ant scored 10 of his 29 points in the game’s final 39 seconds to seize the victory. That’s why they call it “March Madness,” folks.
Roughly four months after that fateful game, Ant became the first player chosen by the Harlem Globetrotters in their inaugural draft and has hit his share of buzzer-beaters during his 10 seasons with the team. He has shot hoops with President Obama and met Pope Francis. He’s performed in over 80 countries all over the world, once scoring 93 points in a game. He has broken three Guinness World Records® records and been on national TV dozens of times.
Still, that day in Springfield is mentioned often to Ant.
“People come up to me all the time and ask if I’m the guy that made the shot in the championship game, or they hit me up on social media and tell me how they watch the video of that game’s last 45 seconds for motivation to never give up,” says Ant. “We won a lot of games with crazy finishes that year, so we never stopped fighting when it looked bleak.”
This week, the Big Dance begins, and Ant is not the only Globetrotter with NCAA postseason memories.
El Gato Melendez, the first Puerto Rican-born person to ever play for the Trotters, played college ball for one of the sport’s most prestigious programs, the University of North Carolina. El Gato and the Tar Heels reached the Final Four® in both 1998 and 2000. Even though they lost in the semis in each of those years, El Gato still has fond memories of the tournament.
“Every time we stepped onto the court, we poured our hearts and souls onto the floor,” says El Gato, “and no matter the result, we always returned home to the most amazing crowd waiting for us, because Tar Heel fans are absolutely the best college basketball fans in the country.”
Upsets are a huge part of what fans love about the tournament. Firefly Fisher’s Siena College Saints were a huge underdog in their first round game of the 2008 tournament – a 13 seed pitted against 4th-seeded Vanderbilt – but that didn’t faze them.
“Nobody gave us a chance, because Vanderbilt was really good, and people didn’t know anything about us; some writers were even spelling Siena with an extra ‘n,’” remembers Firefly. “All of that just gave us the mindset that we had nothing to lose, and the pressure was all on Vandy.”
The Saints played loose and pressure-free in controlling the game from the opening tip in a shocking 83-62 blowout in which Firefly was 6-for-6 on 3-pointers.
The tournament can also be a time for firsts. Southeastern Louisiana University started playing men’s basketball in 1947, but didn’t make its first (and still only) NCAA tournament appearance until 2005, led by the bruising Big Easy Lofton.
“That team was filled with underdogs who didn't take no for an answer, and we willed ourselves to a conference title,” proudly says Big Easy. “Even though we lost in the first round of the Tourney (to 2nd-seeded Oklahoma State), our season was still was a success. What we went through to get the program to that level was unbelievable. I will forever have love for everyone who was a part of that team. I will never forget getting on a private jet and flying to Oklahoma City for that tournament game. Now, I’m on the most famous basketball team in the world… not bad for a kid from the projects!”
The University of Montana had not been to the NCAA tournament in five years before Scooter Christensen and the Grizzlies captured the Big Sky Conference tourney title in 2002. Scooter, second on the Grizzlies’ all-time assists list, says a wave of emotions was going through him when he hit the floor for their game against 2nd-seeded Oregon.
The contest was played at Arco Arena, where the Sacramento Kings and huge names like Chris Webber, Mike Bibby and Peja Stojakovic were compiling the best regular season in franchise history – so it was definitely a basketball hotbed at the time.
“It was definitely nerve-wracking, and I had butterflies,” says Scooter. “I remember an early possession, when I was bringing the ball up; I dribbled across the NCAA logo at midcourt, looked around, and there wasn't an empty seat in the building. I smiled, took a breath, called a play… and we were ballin.’”
Losing that game did not tarnish the experience for Scooter and his teammates.
“I would ride with those guys to the end,” he says. “We will forever have that bond, and we made a bit of history in our own time.”
The women’s postseason begins this week as well, and TNT Lister was fortunate enough to be a part of three NCAA tournament teams. Her 2007 Temple squad notched just the third NCAA tourney win in program history at the time in a first round triumph over Nebraska, before a hard-fought 10-point loss to #1-seeded Duke. Her college postseason experience is something that will stay with her forever.
“The NCAA tourney is so exciting to be a part of, they literally role out the red carpet for teams,” says TNT. “It really makes you feel rewarded for your efforts. I wish every athlete could experience it at least once, because even though every team doesn't have a winning season, all collegiate athletes work hard.”
When you are watching the NCAA tournaments unfold, you could be seeing some future stars of the Harlem Globetrotters. Find your tickets to see today’s stars when the Harlem Globetrotters 2017 World Tour hits a city near you.
Also watch for tournament predictions from some of your favorite Globetrotters stars.