SALEM, Va. — KJ Evans did everything he could possibly do, and then some, to bring Wisconsin-Whitewater a NCAA Division III national championship Saturday.
Evans had 22 points to lead the Warhawks to a 75-73 victory against Williams, a game that ended the way every big game should end. A driving layup by Quardell Young with just nine-tenths of a second remaining on the clock decided the victory.
It was an electrifying conclusion to a Division IIII championship weekend in which there were plenty of incredible moments for Evans, who was named its Most Outstanding Player. That honor was nice enough, of course, but it was the title trophy that meant everything to Evans.
Five of Wisconsin-Whitewater’s core group — Young, Alex Merg, Cody Odegaard, Eric Bryson and Steve Egan — were part of the school’s 2012 national championship. Two others, Evans and Reggie Hearn, had to yet to earn their rings.
That’s no longer an issue.
“It’s definitely good to get that award, but coming in, the ultimate goal was just to put a ring on my finger,” Evans said. “That was the most important thing to me. That was the most important thing to the rest of the team.”
Evans’ uncle, Duane Vance, won also won a national championship for Wisconsin-Whitewater in 1984. Thirty years later, Vance remains among the school’s career leaders in games played, points scored, assists and free throws made.
“[Evans] comes by it naturally,” said Pat Miller, the Warhawks’ head coach. “We grew up ten miles apart, and I played with his uncle. He was one of the best players who ever played at Whitewater. He learned from the best.”
After the buzzer, Evans took off into the stands to celebrate with his parents, Kenneth and Deann. It meant that much to him to be able to share the moment with them.
“It’s been a long road,” he said. “My mom and my dad … it’s always been my dad, day in and day out, having me in the gym seven days a week. It’s good to finally bring this home to them. I wasn’t able to do it in high school. It’s great to finally do something like this.”
Evans had ten points through the first half of Friday’s semifinal game against Illinois Wesleyan, and nine Saturday in the national championship game. He poured it on in the final twenty minutes Friday, doubling his scoring output in Wisconsin-Whitewater’s 71-63 victory.
According to Evans, that’s been his modus operandi for most of his career.
“I’m not sure what it’s been throughout the year, but I play better in the second half,” Evans said. “That’s how it’s been the entire year and most of my career, honestly. I just feel like our back’s against the wall. There is no tomorrow, so I’m just going to come out and do whatever I can.”
Miller now has a title to his credit as a Warhawks player in 1989, and two as a coach. Players like Evans helped put him over the top.
“He’s a great competitor,” Miller said. “He wants to win. He has an incredible work ethic. He’s improved his game tremendously over the two years he’s been in our program. Every day in practice, he gives a great effort.”
That’s not to say, however, that Miller believes Evans’ game is perfect in every way. In Friday’s semifinal game, the junior guard made a particularly poor pass that led to a turnover and a couple of points during a Titans comeback attempt.
Both coach and player were asked about it following the seminfinal game, and when Evans started to answer, Miller interrupted him.
“That question was directed towards me, KJ,” Miller said, a grin spreading across his face before he continued. “I’ve coached a lot of different types of players. I could run a thousand drills about not throwing that pass, and I guarantee you he’ll throw it. That’s what he does.”
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, Miller was quick to add.
“He has that aggressiveness, that intensity,” said Miller, who played for the Warhawks from 1986 to 1989. “He wants to make plays. It leads to a lot of success. You also have some of those [bad] plays, and throughout my career, I’ve always been willing to live with those because the positives outweigh the negatives.”
Before he was finished with the thought, Miller had one last parting shot. The pass in question, he concluded, might have been the worst pass in school history and if not the worst, then definitely in the top five. Again, he smiled.
No harm, no foul. Not this weekend. A championship tends to make up for a lot of things.