The Greatest College Hoops Comeback You Never Saw

In March of 2007, Barton College, led by a future Harlem Globetrotter, shocked Winona State and the nation in the D-II title game.

by Mike Vorkunov
25 March 2016, 10:49pm

Sunday night, after Northern Iowa had been capitulated in excruciating fashion from the second round of the NCAA Tournament, the thought of his own bitter loss popped back into Zach Malvik's mind.

For nine years, the former Winona State guard has expunged most traces of the game from his memory. He cannot recall much of it—at least not in detail—but it lingers. On March 24, 2007, Winona State entered the MassMutual Center in Springfield, Mass. on a 57-game winning streak, as defending Division-II basketball national champions—they would win again the next year too—and with the two-time D-II player of the year, John Smith, on their team.

They were, at that moment, the titans of their sport and the definitive favorite in that day's title game. Barton College, a tiny school from Wilson, North Carolina, seemed like it would just be another harmless roadblock in Winona's path. Instead, the game resulted in one of the greatest comebacks in college hoops history, and also one of the biggest upsets in any championship game.

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"We're a small school—right around 950 students—so it's a true David and Goliath story right out of the Bible in a sense," Ron Lievense, the Barton coach then and now, said.

At first, the game played to expectations. After about 17 minutes, Winona led by 14. At halftime, they led by 10, and were up by that margin again with 8:56 remaining.

Much as they tried, Barton could not whittle their deficit down to anything significantly closer. With 45.6 seconds remaining, Malvik, his blond hair glued to his forehead by sweat, stepped to the free throw line for two shots with his team leading 72-67. He hit the first.

"If he tacks on that one more here, it makes it very, very difficult for Barton with only 45 seconds left," Dan Bonner, the color commentator for the CBS broadcast, said.

Then Malvik hit the second too. Winona State now led by seven, 74-67, and seemed ready to celebrate again. Even Lievense, although he did not concede defeat, was realistic. "Do we have enough left in our tank to make a run?" he wondered to himself.

What happened next is one of the great moments in NCAA Tournament history: scintillating, captivating and largely overlooked.

"If that whole sequence played out at the Division-I level it would have gone down as the greatest championship game in college basketball history," said Ian Eagle, who called the game for CBS. "Because it's Division-II, it flies under the radar. It doesn't take away from the drama of the moment."

He adds: "I don't think you'll ever get a perfect storm like that. I didn't do another Division-II (game) after that. My feeling was, well, nothing's ever going to match that."

Ant Atkinson's play in the D-II title game got him a job with the Harlem Globetrotters. Photo: Wikimedia.

There were no brackets on the line, no blue-blooded universities on the court. The game's star, Ant Atkinson, remains mostly unknown, though his heroics led him to a job with the Harlem Globetrotters. In just 45 seconds, Barton and Atkinson would engineer a comeback that has few peers. While Northern Iowa may lament its downfall, Winona State was not similarly completely undone by its own miscues. Instead, the Bulldogs nearly willed themselves to the win, specifically through the sheer force of the 5-foot-9 Atkinson.

"I remember it," Malvik said. "I'll always remember it. It's kind of a blur."

By the time, the game had ended, Atkinson had scored 10 points in the remaining 45.6 seconds as part of a game-high 29, having played all 40 minutes. Barton stood victorious, 77-75. The final seconds were a thrill ride. And Barton, which had arrived in Springfield to no fanfare, returned home to Wilson with a police escort to campus and fans lining the main street from the interstate from about three miles out.

"That was a testament to our whole year," Atkinson said. "We were always the underdog going in, down a lot of games, where we had to come back ... Every team was nationally known but we were nobodies."

It began with the ball in Atkinson's hands after Malvik's free throw—the last of his 26 points that day. Atkinson took the inbounds pass, dribbled upcourt, took a screen at the three-point line, cut into the lane and scored with a layup after a spin move and little resistance. Winona State led by five, 74-69, with 38.2 seconds remaining.

Immediately after the ensuing inbounds, Malvik was fouled by Atkinson and headed back to the line for a one and one. A 79.7 percent shooter from free throw that year, Malvik's shot clanged off the back rim and Atkinson was pushing upcourt again. Again, he weaved into the lane and he pulled up to hit a jump shot with 25.9 seconds left. Suddenly, Winona State led just 74-71, the closest Barton had come in 14 minutes of game-time.

And then Winona State got careless. Quincy Henderson made an inbounds pass to Jeonte Flowers just outside the lane on the right block. But it was picked out of his hands by Errol Frail, who found Atkinson for another layup. Barton trailed by just one now, 74-73, and Atkinson was going to line too after being fouled on the shot with 22.2 seconds left.

But this wouldn't be seamless. Atkinson's free throw attempt was short and Winona State grabbed the rebound, with Flowers now heading to the line after being immediately fouled.

Meanwhile, Atkinson churned around the court, his head down and his face glum. He punched the air with his right fist and muttered his displeasure. He found reassurance from Brian Leggett, Barton's center, who approached him with a message. "You'll get another chance to help us win," Leggett told him.

Atkinson didn't have much time to wait. Flowers, a 75 percent shooter, missed the first free throw and made the second. Winona State now led 75-73 and needed to bleed out 19.4 more seconds. They couldn't.

Atkinson walked the ball up to the left wing then gathered steam, driving right by his defender, putting his foot into the paint, and floating underneath the basket for a reverse layup. The game was tied at 75.

This gave Winona State 7.6 seconds to go the length of the court and to win. Malvik received the ball 93 feet away from the hoop and underneath his own basket, and steamed right ahead. But right as he passed half-court, Bobby Buffaloe came from behind and tipped the ball away with just less than four seconds remaining.

Atkinson received it at halfcourt with 2.5 to go. He had no one in front of him, a tie game and the national championship at his fingertips. He just had to shoot before time ran out.

Lievense considered calling a timeout but held off once he saw Atkinson glance at the clock.

"I can't tell you but peace just flooded me," he said. "I knew that he was going to make the right decision. I don't know what it was but a peace just came over me. Anthony is going to be OK."

The coach did not know what Atkinson would do but knew what he was capable of. Two games prior, in the Elite Eight, Atkinson had gone the full length of the court in 3.9 seconds. Atkinson was thinking the same. He knew if he could do that, he could go halfway in 2.5 seconds.

Still, the calculus was dicey. Atkinson had hit a game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer to beat Grand Valley State in the Elite Eight and hit free throws with 1.5 seconds left in the semifinal to beat Cal State San Bernardino, and Barton had gone 9-0 in overtime games that year. But if he misread the situation here, Barton could face that agony again. They had lost to Winona in overtime the year before in the Elite Eight.

"I looked up and I had noticed I had time on the clock," Atkinson said. "So I said if I miss the layup, we're going to overtime. But if I make it, this is probably one of the greatest comebacks ever. So I took my chances at it. I was able to count it. It was over. All the emotions, all the energy—my whole life flashed in my eyes."

He charged to the basket, eschewing a jump shot even as he heard screams in the arena for him to shoot. With 0.1 seconds remaining, the ball left his hand. It banked off the backboard, off the front rim and through as the buzzer sounded. Atkinson sprinted around the court, holding his head in his hands as his teammates chased him. On the air, Eagle and Bonner both just screamed "Good!"

In front of them, off screen, a Barton player took off his jersey, threw it up in the air and it landed on the head of a Winona State foe.

"It would be hard to script a comeback of that magnitude," Eagle said. "And to end on the final play, literally with no time remaining and Atkinson lunging for the win, that's a storybook, Hollywood ending."

Malvik was left "shocked" and in disbelief. Atkinson and Barton exploded in pandemonium. Eagle went back to his hotel room that night and could not sleep. He just replayed the game over and over again in his head.

Even now, Leviense thinks about that game daily. A photo memorializing it sits in his office. Malvik and Atkinson saw each other a few weeks later at a college all-star game. They exchanged words but did not mention the title game. Malvik is now an assistant coach at Winona State and says he has not watched a replay once.

Atkinson's career was changed by the game. The Globetrotters called him soon after and told him they wanted to make him the No. 1 pick in their inaugural draft, and they did. He still plays for the franchise. The game was nominated for "Best Finish" in that summer's ESPY awards.

And every March, when the tournament rolls around, he remembers the game all over again and the heartbreak for Winona State.

"Every time around this year they're always going to think of me," he said. "That's the one thing they're going to do. And they're going to think of me and my Barton B's and we went out there and won the national championship away from them."

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march madness
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ant atkinson
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