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For Babson College basketball team, it’s a ‘storybook ending’

Babson's Joey Flannery (32), teammates and coach Stephen Brennan, center, celebrate after winning the NCAA Division III men's college basketball championship game against Augustana on Saturday, March 18, 2017, in Salem, Va. Babson won 79-78. (AP Photo/Don Petersen)
Don Petersen/Associated Press
Babson College men’s basketball coach Steve Brennan raised the trophy after Babson won the NCAA Division 3 men's basketball championship March 18.

Suddenly, after the final buzzer, it was surreal.

Steve Brennan, men’s basketball coach at Wellesley-based Babson College, watched his 4-year-old twins outlining “snow’’ angels on the floor in the fallen confetti at the Salem, Va., Civic Center. More than an hour later, the celebration, the embracing, the picture-taking were still in full bloom.

And with good cause: Babson had slipped by Augustana College of Illinois, 79-78, to claim its first NCAA Division 3 national championship.

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“It was a storybook ending,” said senior Joey Flannery, Babson’s 6-foot-5 All-American guard and the team’s all-time leading scorer. On this night, Flannery, the points machine, had to make a game-saving defensive play with 2.9 seconds left to secure the dream.

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The drama began seconds earlier, with Babson up a point and Flannery at the foul line for a one-and-one. He had made all nine previous foul shots, and if he made two more, Augustana, with the clock against it, would need a miraculous three-pointer to tie it.

“When I released, I thought the ball was going in,” said Flannery. “It hit the back rim.” Augustana rebounded and headed the other way.

Don Petersen/Associated Press
Babson's Joey Flannery (32) blocked the shot of Augustana's Nolan Ebel (14) with seconds remaining.

Flannery took off, too. “I knew I had to make a play.” The opportunity came when Nolan Ebel, Augustana’s top scorer, drove hard for the potential game-winning layup. Flannery slipped into Ebel’s space and blocked the shot. It seemed everybody in the gym held their breath. Would there be a foul called? No whistle.

“I didn’t foul him, but it was a risk,” said Flannery. “I’ve made that type of block before.”

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“Joey went over everybody and just crushed the shot,” said Brennan. “That’s been Joey his whole career. He always came through in the big moment.”

After the celebration cooled a bit, said Brennan, it crossed his mind that “I’m never going to work with this kid again.” It was a sobering thought. “Joey was our best performer.

“I’m thankful for being able to work with this team,” said Brennan, who’s coached the team for 22 years. Babson finished the season 31-2 .

Flannery was playing for Acton-Boxborough Regional High when he caught the eye of the Babson coaches. They followed him through a year at Taft School in Watertown, Conn. “They recruited me hard,” said Flannery, “and I thought I could come in and help them right away. But I didn’t think it’d be like this!”

Neither did Brennan, for whom Flannery exceeded all expectations. He finished with 2,620 points, best ever at the school and 8th-best on the all-time Division 3 list. He’s a three-time Division 3 All-American and was the New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference player of the year three consecutive seasons. Brennan didn’t see that coming. But Flannery made a strong first impression, and his resume filled up rapidly.

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Flannery knew of Babson’s lofty goals. “Our expectations are always through the roof,” said Brennan. Aiming for the national title has become the norm. Last season the team felt it was good enough to win it all, but Flannery was injured, and Babson bowed out in the NCAA’s Sweet 16 tournament.

Nothing, not even injuries, was going to stop Babson this time. Starters Sam Bohmiller and Bradley Jacks were banged up and played limited time down the stretch, including the postseason, but the bench players stepped in ably.

Babson got accustomed to playing thrillers. Against MIT, Flannery found Nick Comenale in the corner in front of the Babson bench as the clock wound down. Comenale drilled a buzzer-beater for the win.

Flannery isn’t ready to step into the real world just yet. “I’m going to try to play at the highest level for as long as I can. Maybe Europe. I’m excited for whatever comes.”

Maybe it was destined that the team had to wait for the dying moments of the 33d and final game to secure the title. “At one point I thought, ‘Are we really going to lose this game after leading for the last 28 minutes?’ ” said Brennan. “Then I looked around and saw the confetti flying. Everybody hugging and screaming. We had the trophy. I thought wow, ‘is this really happening?’  . . . It was beyond everything.”

The coach flew with his family to Disney World the next morning. That’s what champions do, right?

There was another Wellesley-rooted school with something to celebrate recently. MassBay Community College, which practices and plays its games at the former Framingham South High gym, finished fifth in the country after going 2-1 in the national tournament in Minnesota. A 75-72 win over Nassau climaxed the year.

It was the last game for retiring coach Bill Raynor, 64, ending a 42-year career on the sidelines, the last 10 at MassBay. Raynor, the school’s athletic director who runs the recreation, wellness, and community outreach programs, was inducted into the New England Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Babson's Charlie Rice (24), Nick Comenale (21) and Frank Oftring (30) celebrate the team's win over Augustana in the NCAA Division III college basketball championship game Saturday, March 18, 2017, in Salem, Va. Babson won 79-78. (AP Photo/Don Petersen)
Don Petersen/Associated Press
Babson's Charlie Rice (24), Nick Comenale (21), and Frank Oftring (30) celebrated at the buzzer.

Lenny Megliola can be reached at lennymegs@aol.com.