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Springfield Awaits Champion Panthers’ Return Home

Drury Basbetball champs
Drury Panthers celebrate with their title trophy after Sunday's game/Credit: www.drury.edu

It was a nail biting finish to the Drury University and Metro State National Championship game Sunday. KSMU’s Scott Harvey reports.

Update 8:58 p.m. Monday: Drury University has announced a homecoming celebration will now take place at the O'Reilly Family Event Center, where fans are encouraged to greet the team as they arrive following a sheriff's escort back to campus around 12:15 p.m. Tuesday.  The team bus will pull up on Summit Street in front of O'Reilly, and fans are asked to form a human tunnel up the stairs to the main entrance of the facility. President Todd Parnell will welcome everyone inside the Center, and Coach Steve Hesser and some of the players will share their thoughts after winning the school's first NCAA-II basketball title. 

Additionally, the university says they're working with the City of Springfield to plan a celebration to recognize the three Drury teams that won three national championships in less than a month: Men’s and Women’s Swimming and Diving on March 9, and Men’s Basketball on April 7. The date and details of that celebration will be announced at a later date.

Original story: On a Monday morning, it’s rather quiet outside Drury University’s Pearsons Hall, where you’d normally find students walking to class. But on the 8th of April, the university is operating with a minimal staff at its Springfield campus, to allow for the safe return of those who traveled to Atlanta to witness the Panther men’s basketball team win the NCAA Division II National Championship.

“Every time we were even or we got ahead by one point everyone would go wild, and we were chanting. It was just awesome,” says Kelly Cafey.

One of the few students I found on campus Monday was Kelly Cafey, part in a small outdoor study group taking advantage of the pleasant weather. She watched Sunday’s game with a group of students at a Qdoba.

“First of all, I don’t watch basketball – that was the first basketball game I had ever watched – and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I also had a mini heat attack.”

That anxiety likely reached its peak in the final minutes of the game, when Drury, after trailing most of the contest, overcame a double-digit deficit to take the lead, surviving several missed shot attempts by their opponent in the final seconds to win 74-73.  It is the Panthers’ first NCAA Division II National Championship, and extended their school record winning streak to 23 games.

“You know I was just in shock that we go that far and we came back from a 17-point deficit. It’s just a great feeling,” Hall says.

Senior guard Alex Hall, the team’s leading scorer, sank a couple of clutch free throws with just over 22 seconds remaining to seal the victory. He thanked the fans for the loyalty they’ve shown all year.

“You gotta give them a lot of the credit for, you know, where we are now because they’re just as much a part of this team as we are. And they deserve credit for this national championship.”

See the highlights of Drury's win.  

It was more than just a championship Sunday. Shortly after his team captured the title, Drury Head Coach Steve Hesser received the National Association of Basketball Coaches National D-II Coach of the Year Award.

The Panthers are expected to be honored during Monday night’s NCAA Division I Championship game between Louisville and Michigan inside the Georgia Dome on CBS. The team will return to Springfield Tuesday, arriving at Springfield Branson National Airport at noon. Fans are encouraged to gather in the meet and greet area near the restaurant, past baggage claim and the gift shop.

Much like the team, students such as Kelly Cafey will be savoring the victory for quite some time.

“I’m expecting chanting and cheers for at least a week,” Cafey says.

For KSMU news, I’m Scott Harvey.