SALEM, Va. -- Of the four teams here for the NCAA Division III Final Four, all are in the Top 10 nationally and none are ranked lower than second in their region.
That won't stop Mike Maker and the Williams Ephs from embracing what Maker says is their status as Cinderella.
"Aren't we?" Maker asked rhetorically. "We haven't beaten Amherst in three years. Not many people outside of the Williams contingent picked us to get this far, let alone to beat our archrival on a neutral floor.
"Listen. It's four basketball programs with great basketball traditions. Each of them has won at least one national championship. I think we're as good as anyone we play. The proof is in the pudding. We have not been able to beat our archrival in some time."
Williams and Amherst will meet for the fourth time this year tonight in the second game of the NCAA Division III Final Four here at the Civic Center. In the opener, third-ranked Wisconsin-Whitewater will play No. 6 Illinois Wesleyan. The winner of that game will play Saturday against the winner of the game between the No. 7 Lord Jeffs and No. 9 Ephs.
Amherst is on an 8-0 run against Williams. The last time a Williams team beat Amherst was in 2011, when the Ephs beat the Lord Jeffs 77-71 in the regional final at Chandler Gym.
This is also the first time Williams and Amherst have played four times in a season since the 2003-04 season. The Ephs went 3-1 and beat the Lord Jeffs 86-81 in a Final Four game.
"A lot of people have talked about us being 0-4 in the NCAAs, and two of them are on their court. Different coach, different players," said Amherst coach Dave Hixon. "Just like the eight in a row don't connect for me, and the three this year don't connect for me. They're all separate entities. I think you have to treat them like that."
Williams center Mike Mayer, who on Thursday was named to the National Association of Basketball Coaches All-Northeast First Team along with region Player of the Year Aaron Toomey from Amherst, said that if there's a good time to play Amherst, it could be right now because Williams is playing its best basketball of the year.
"I think so," said Mayer, "but then again, we're playing a really good team. We'll see what happens. They're really good and we'll have to play really well to beat them."
There are no secrets in this game. Amherst has four big weapons in Toomey (20.5 points, 5.2 rebounds per game), Connor Green (17.6 points), Tom Killian (15.0) and David Kalema (12.7). Green is a sophomore, while the others are seniors.
For Amherst, the key will be to contain starters Mayer (18.2 points, 8.9 rebounds), freshman Duncan Robinson (16.7 points, 6.7 rebounds), Taylor Epley (13.6) and Daniel Wohl (13.0). The "X-Factor" for Williams could be swingman Hayden Rooke-Ley, who started early in the season but has been coming off the bench as a sixth man since breaking his shooting (left) hand in a Jan. 18 win over Colby. Rooke-Ley sat until the Ephs beat Middlebury in the NESCAC tournament.
"What matters is who's the best team [tonight] for 40 minutes," said Maker. "We have a lot of confidence in the way we're playing. We're finally fully healthy. I think we're playing our best basketball. I want our guys to relish the role of Cinderella, play free and be the aggressor."
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