SALEM, Va. — Two points shy of winning a national championship, the Augustana men’s basketball team left the NCAA Division III Final Four on Saturday night with more than a runner-up finish.
The 79-78 loss to Babson also provided a young Vikings team with a reminder that championships aren’t participation prizes.
“It’s hard to win a championship. If nothing else, I do think our guys have an opportunity to gain even more of an appreciation for that,’’ Augustana coach Grey Giovanine said.
“We were a young team which caught lightning in a bottle this year. We made a terrific run, I don’t discount that. They were tremendous, but in some ways if we would have finished this off it may have come almost too easily.’’
The Vikings’ graduation losses from a 29-2 team in the 2015-16 season are well documented, but losing the top six scorers and rebounders from a team which finished as a national runner-up in 2015 didn’t deter Augustana from returning to elite company in a field of more than 400 Division III programs.
“To get to this point from where we started, it’s taken a lot of work from everybody. We’ve had some challenges, and we met most of them,’’ said the Vikings’ lone senior starter, Jacob Johnston.
“The guys coming back, they’re going to do great things. They have so much potential and it’s going to be great watching them get back here and win it all.’’
No matter what happened in the Final Four, the experience of reaching that point in the postseason has already helped lay the foundation for the future.
Consensus all-College Conference of Illinois & Wisconsin selection Chrishawn Orange led Augustana in scoring at 14.2 points per game, but nine of the 10 players in the rotation for the Vikings during the postseason were underclassmen.
“We have work to do. We didn’t meet all of our goals,’’ guard Dylan Sortillo said. “We didn’t win the conference outright. We didn’t win the conference tournament. There is still a lot of room to grow. That’s the exciting thing about this team.’’
Giovanine sees that growth potential as well.
While displaying plenty of grit and determination on the way to 24-9 record, the Vikings at times lacked the consistency that previous Augustana teams had shown.
“When you think about some of our younger guys, they are just beginning to scratch the surface of realizing their potential,’’ Giovanine said. “As a program, we’re performing at a high level. We’ve played for two national titles in three years. We’re not that far away, but you have to be awfully good at the right time to win it all.’’
An example could be found on the opposite bench Saturday, where five seniors led Babson to its first national title. Many of the players tasted NCAA play two years earlier, losing to Augustana in the national semifinals.
“Their five seniors maybe taught our six freshmen and sophomores a few things tonight,’’ Giovanine said.
Those lessons will guide the Vikings into the offseason.
“Every minute of every game we’ve played in the tourney, it’s going to help us down the road,’’ Giovanine said. “For a young team, experience is such a valuable teacher. We’ll learn from it all and be better for it the next time around. I firmly believe that.’’
That was tough for the Vikings to deal with Saturday.
“A loss like this is hard to swallow,’’ Sortillo said. “We left it on the court, but it will motivate us as we work toward the future.’’