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The venue: Barton College’s Wilson Gymnasium. The time: Saturday afternoon.
Anthony “Ant” Atkinson drained a shot at the buzzer to lift the Bulldogs to a two-point victory.
No, the occasion was not a re-creation of the 2007 NCAA Division II championship game — when Atkinson poured in 10 points in the final 45 seconds to rally the Bulldogs past Winona State, 77-75, and to their only national basketball championship.
Instead, Atkinson’s latest buzzer-beater enabled the 2007 team to defeat the 2017-18 Bulldogs in an exhibition treat.
Barton players from 2007 noted the current Bulldogs were tired after Friday night’s exhibition against defending NCAA Division I champion North Carolina and were without three of their starters.
Nonetheless, the drama of the outcome provided a fitting introduction to Saturday night’s celebration — when the 2007 team was honored and two of its star players, Atkinson and Alejo Barovero, as well as head coach Ron Lievense were inducted into the Barton College Athletic Hall of Fame.
“It’s truly a great day to be a Bulldog!” remarked Lievense.
Finally, Lievense, Barton’s head coach since 1996, could be relieved of his condition of an emotional wreck — a malady that he said has lingered for two or three weeks.
Members of the crowd still cheered when the video of the final 45 seconds was flashed before them and nostalgia filled the tent set up just off Championship Drive and across from Wilson Gym.
Rawlings praised Atkinson, a Wilson product, for rewriting the record books and added: “He will forever rank as one of the greatest — perhaps the greatest — player to ever play here. Tonight, he gets to shine with his teammates.”
The emcee emphasized Atkinson didn’t wn the championship by himself, but contended: “It wouldn’t have happened without him.”
In two seasons with the Bulldogs after transferring from Campbell University, Atkinson tossed in 1,340 points (seventh best during the Bulldogs’ Division II era) and ranks second with 376 assists.
During the championship season, Atkinson, the point guard, poured in 750 points and handed out a single-season record 217 assists. He earned NCAA Division II All-America acclaim.
MEANS THE WORLD
“This night means the world to me,” Atkinson commented much to the delight of his audience.
He was quick to thank his college coaches — Lievense, Joel Zimmerman, Mark Pounds and John Skinner — and his high school coach, Greenfield School’s Rob Salter, who was in attendance.
He cited the importance of Jesus Christ, family and teammates.
“This was the best team I’ve ever played on,” commented Atkinson, now a member of the famed Harlem Globetrotters, who tour all over the world. “I will cherish every moment — the experience, the fun and the wins. I got a lot of credit for scoring points, but I appreciate (teammates) for believing in me and my leadership, and giving me the confidence every day to go out and win a championship.”
Atkinson reflected on a tour autograph session, when he was approached by an individual who asked:
“Are you the guy?”
The Globetrotter responded: “Excuse me; what guy are you talking about?”
“You broke our hearts 10 years ago,” the stranger answered.
HE WAS THE GUY
Atkinson realized he was conversing with a Winona State fan and chirped: “Yeah, I’m the guy!”
“Everywhere we go — all over the world — we are known. It’s amazing. I thought we had an effect on a little town and (the Barton team) affected the whole world.”
Atkinson said he will never forget returning from the national championship site and finding from 2,500-3,000 fans awaiting them on the Barton campus.
“No violence or hatred,” he noted, “just all love and support.”
He insistsed he transferred to Barton because “he wanted to do something for Wilson.”
Atkinson endeavored to transform negative images into positives.
“I wanted to show good things could come out of Wilson and give us a sense of pride,” he explained.
Rawlings suggested the “stars aligned perfectly” the championship year and assured Barovero was among the Bulldogs’ “biggest and brightest stars.”
Barovero, who now resides in his native Argentina and did not attend the celebration, suffered a hand injury his senior season but declined to be redshirted.
Rawlings credited the preseason All-American for being determined to overcome the injury and hailed him for accepting his status as a senior-year role player and rejoining the team and providing spark badly needed.
“Every season, he got better and better,” Rawlings said.
As a senior, Barovero averaged 15.6 points in 18 games. He was a major contributor as a starter his junior year, when the Bulldogs reached the Elite Eight for the first time. At the age of 32, Barovero, also an attorney, continues to play professionally in Argentina.
His award was accepted by Zimmerman. Barovero dedicated his award to his family. Zimmerman pointed out that, as his brother, Cedric Barovero, predicted, Barovero came to the United States and made a name for himself.
Zimmerman read a note authored by Alejo Barovero.
The contents included: “Everybody in Wilson made me feel at home. They made me not only a better basketball player but a better human being. My coaches and teammates challenged me to grow in sports and academia.The Barton team is, by far, the best I’ve ever played on.”
Barovero contended he has not since experienced the competitive spirit which was prevalent during his Barton days. He treasures the championship journey.
“To think about that brings me pride and joy,” he said. “I was merely a cog in a finely-tuned machine.”
Lievense found himself the subject of good-natured stories.
Zimmerman, with a grin, said he particularly noticed Lievense the final 45 seconds, and watched him go from one fist bump, to two fist bumps and, finally, to bounding back and forth behind the bench.
Rawlings spoke of encountering Lievense soon after he became Barton’s head coach and being impressed with Lievense’s excitement about the Wilson community and people.
He remembered Lievense commenting: “You’ve got this wonderful mall (no longer in existence). It’s fabulous!”
Said Rawlings: “I knew right there in my heart I was never moving to Laurinburg (site of Saint Andrews University, where Lievense coached before coming to Barton).”
Lievense informed his listeners that he and Zimmerman have been sharing stories about 2007 for several days. He lauded his assistants, Barton’s administrators and his team. He thanked Gary Hall, then the athletic director, for offering him the position and Dr. James Hemby, then the president, for hiring him. He congratulated the latest to be enshrined into the hall of fame for a “tremendous honor.”
“Because of these men right here, my life changed forever,” he assured.
“I am proud and honored to be a part of the Wilson community and Barton College,” Lievense continued. “I feel like I am the most blessed coach in the country. I have coached special young men; I live in an incredible community that loves athletics and Barton College; and we may be a small school but it doesn’t mean we can’t beat some big ones.”
Lievense is just two wins away from 400 during his Bulldogs tenure. In his first season, Barton went 22-5, won a conference regular-season title and qualified for the NCAA tournament for the first time. Since then, he has won nine more regular-season or conference tournament titles, has registered eight additional 20-win campaigns and has directed Barton to six more NCAA tournament trips. The 22-year head coach has been proclaimed coach of the year on four occasions.
Of being enshrined, Lievense responded: “I’m very humbled by it.”