CORTLAND, N.Y. - In 1981, the Potsdam men's basketball team made an unprecedented run that culminated in a Division III National Championship. Along the way, the Bears faced immeasurable odds that made the story of their victory even more impressive.
1981 was a year for redemption. Potsdam had reached the national championship game in 1979 and the quarterfinals in 1980, suffering heartbreaking losses on both occasions. The '81 team knew they had something to prove and powered through the regular season, finishing with a 24-1 overall record. In the SUNYAC championship tournament, the Bears cruised through the semifinals, defeating Buffalo State, 69-59. In the conference finals, the University of Albany shocked the Bears, 60-59, to take the conference title. Despite the loss, Potsdam clinched a berth into the NCAA tournament and was selected to host the East Regional.
In the first round, Potsdam faced the College of Staten Island, ultimately blowing them out, 80-57. In the regional finals, Potsdam was pitted against Albany, looking to avenge the conference championship loss. The Bears and the Great Danes battled and, ultimately, no one could prevail in regulation. Potsdam was able to control overtime and defeated Albany, 68-63. With the win, Potsdam punched their ticket to the Elite Eight.
The Bears hosted the Clark Cougars (Mass), hoping to survive yet another round. After a hard-fought battle, Potsdam was able to win by a score of 87-81. They were now Final Four-bound and headed on the nearly 1,000-mile journey to Augustana College in Park Island, Illinois. Potsdam was set to face the Ursinus College Bears (coincidentally, the schools currently use very similar logos and color schemes).
On March 20, after traveling the length of 56,000 basketball courts, Potsdam found themselves two wins away from a National Championship. Ursinus proved to be a strong test, but Potsdam was ultimately able to overcome with a 63-61 victory. They were now set to face host institution Augustana College in the finals.
The next day, the Bears arrived at the Roy J. Carver Physical Education Center. They were now one victory away from their goal. The only obstacles were a 25-5 Augustana team and the 5,500 raucous fans that were supporting them. The atmosphere was electric; fans were packed like sardines. Fledgling sports network ESPN was on-site to broadcast the game. Potsdam was faced with immeasurable odds. How could they ever pull off a victory?
In a tense back-and-forth game, both teams were unable to reach a decisive edge. The game was going down to the wire. Then, with five seconds remaining in the game, Augustana's star player, Maxwell Artis, was fouled after making a tremendous block. The 65% free-throw shooter stepped to the line with the game tied at 55. Artis put up his first free-throw that rattled through to make it 56-55. He then stepped up and nailed the second free-throw to put Augustana up 57-55. The situation was bleak. Without a three-point line, Potsdam needed to drive the length of the court to tie the game. The Bears inbounded the ball to Leroy Witherspoon. Witherspoon dribbled down the court and threw up a shot from thirty feet. His shot fell through the net as time expired, tying the game at 57 and pushing the game into overtime. In the extra frame, Potsdam was able to pull out a 67-65 win after connecting on 8 of 11 free-throws for their first ever National Championship in men's basketball. After coming close in prior years, the Bears finished with an incredible 30-2 record and supremacy in college basketball.
Ed Jachim and Derrick Rowland were name to the All-Tournament team. Rowland had twenty-four points in the championship game and went on to be drafted by the Denver Nuggets.
Throughout the 1980s, Potsdam continued to be a force in Division III men's basketball. They reached the top again in 1986, winning the National Championship over LeMoyne-Owen. Both the 1981 and 1986 teams have subsequently been inducted into the Potsdam Athletics Hall of Fame and have been honored by the school and local community.
FULL CHAMPIONSHIP GAME WITH ESPN COMMENTARY