Atlanta, Ga. (Drury Sports Information) -- To know all you need to know about Drury coach Steve Hesser and his "team" approach to the game ... his being named the National Association of Basketball Coaches National D-II Coach of the Year is a second-day story on Drury's sports information site only because it was ordered to be that way.
"Tonight's about our players," Hesser said, walking out from the NABC Awards banquet late Sunday evening after receiving his award in front of the likes of Tom Izzo, Tom Crean and other giants of the D-I game and delivering a very brief but passionate speech less than an hour after his Panthers rallied from a 17-point deficit to defeat Metro State 74-73 for their first NCAA-II national title at Philips Arena.
"Wow, it's kind of been a whirlwind the last hour," Hesser told the crowd. "I wish my guys were here because they showed a lot of grit and a lot of determination in being able to pull a game out that looked very grim, especially in the first half. I wish they were here because you get individual awards like this due to the collective effort of your team. The reason I'm up here is because of them and my assistant coaches."
Though he would never admit it, the success of his Panthers - who finished off the season with a school-record, 23-game winning streak - had to be personally rewarding for the ninth-year Drury head coach, on several fronts.
Certainly gone, for one, is the monkey that rode his back during an 0-4 start to his NCAA-II Tournament coaching career, as his Panthers lost first-round games in each of their first four appearances (2006, '07, '08 and '10). Since that start, Hesser's DU squads are 7-1 in NCAA-II tourney play, including the 6-0 march to the title this season.
And, too, is the rewarding thought that these Panthers were led by the nation's best backcourt of Alex Hall and Brandon Lockhart, two players he developed the Drury way - taking in as former high school seniors and making them better over the course of four years, with the culmination of their work a 31-4 campaign this season.
Drury was 94-30 in their four seasons together, including victories in 39 of their final 46 games over their junior and senior seasons as Hesser has pushed his record at Drury to a sparkling 195-75, a .722 winning percentage that ranks him among the best nationally in Division II.
Top that with the chip on their shoulder, particularly in the second half of the season, when the Panthers spent a month trying to simply get back into the national Top 25 poll after losing four of five games in a midseason stretch, then hearing whispers the rest of the regular season that their winning streak was a product of playing in the weaker division of the Great Lakes Valley Conference, the West.
That talk ended, of course, when the Panthers beat three East foes to win the Deaconess GLVC Championship tourney in Evansville, and beat perennial power Bellarmine again, for the second time in 11 days, to capture the Midwest Regional at The O'.
But most importantly, perhaps, this was a season of personal challenge for the 55-year-old Hesser, who spent a mid-February weekend in a Quincy, Ill., hospital with pneumonia, a condition made much more serious when it was discovered he had bacteria in his blood. It forced Hesser to miss the Panthers' game at Illinois-Springfield on February 16 - with eight-year assistant coach Ja Havens guiding the ship (and the team to a 69-53 victory), with help from assistant Steven Gum and graduate assistant Brandon Kimbrough.
And when Hesser returned to practice, it took him weeks to reacquire the strength to fully coach. In fact, he deemed himself "at about 85 percent" back to full bore to the media after Sunday's title game victory, when yet another member of the press unfamiliar with Hesser's situation asked about his eerily calm demeanor on the bench.
That's why he took additional time to praise the work of Havens, Gum and Kimbrough throughout the post-season run, including Sunday's speech in front of his coaching peers.
"When I was sick, they just took the ball and ran with it, and were responsible for a lot of the things we were able to accomplish this year," Hesser said.
Hesser also took a moment to praise the NCAA for its decision, as part of its 75th Anniversary celebration of the Final Four, to bring the D-II and D-III national title games to the host site for the D-I extravaganza this weekend. His Panthers not only got to attend Saturday night's "Final Four" semifinals at the Georgia Dome in a suite provided by the NCAA, but tonight, will do the same and be recognized as national champions in front of the large crowd during the Louisville-Michigan title tilt on CBS.
"To include us and the D-III teams in the Final Four event has just been a tremendous experience," Hesser said.
"At the D-II level, we don't get a lot of police escorts to our games ... I'm kind of getting used to it. It's pretty cool," a line that drew laughter from the crowd, capping a day in which Hesser finally drew the coaching accolades he deserved for teaching and guiding the Panthers to a magical season.
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