BY DEAN HOCKNEY
KOKOMO, Ind. – Austin Weaver knows a thing or two about shooting the rock. But as a sophomore at Indiana University South Bend, he thought his competitive days of hoops were limited to the blacktopped basketball courts in pick-up games.
Boy, was he was wrong.
In a crazy set of circumstances, Weaver found himself on the court at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on March 19 participating in the halftime shootout during the NCAA Men’s Basketball National Tournament. He was picked at random to knock down shots during the Kentucky-Wichita State contest. The former Western standout found a groove and drained 16 of 25 3-point attempts, and in the process, he won an expense-paid trip to the Final Four in Arizona.
That set the stage for April 3 in the mammoth University of Phoenix Stadium – a facility built for college and NFL football – as he took the court in front of more than 76,000 fans during halftime of the national title game between North Carolina and Gonzaga.
“It was pretty sweet,” exclaimed the 2015 Western graduate after settling back on campus in South Bend. “It was cool to see things like Tom Crean on the ESPN set and all of the fans.”
With no warm-up time permitted, Weaver saved one of the best shooting performances of his life for the biggest venue he could find. In the span of one minute during halftime, Weaver showed the nation what Hoosier Hysteria is about by hitting 13 3-pointers to claim the title and a cash prize.
“The first time I realized how nervous I would be was when I went to the Senior All-Star Game on Friday and we walked in and realized how huge the stadium was,” he said. “Then on Monday, we had to be on the floor with eight minutes left (in the first half) and I was getting nervous standing down there as we waited.”
Weaver explained that the three shooters did not get any warm-up time before the game – in fact, his only practice time in Arizona took place at his hotel. Prior to that, it was back on campus in South Bend.
“I stretched while we waited,” he said. “I tried to shoot at the hotel on the outdoor court. I had to use the hotel ball, but it was one of the worse things I had done in my life. The ball was deformed into a square and had lumps all over it – and it was a women’s size ball.”
Once on the floor, he had a goal to hit one of his first three shots.
“If I don’t start well, it doesn’t usually get any better,” he said. “It took me three to get going, and then I hit seven in a row.”
He then joked, “I think I have gotten a little better (than in high school).”
Along with bragging rights and the $1,500 prize, Weaver took home Final Four swag that included an official game ball. The entire package included $500 for winning in Indianapolis, airfare for two plus hotel, tickets to all three Final Four games and the Senior All-Star Game.
“It was cool that Clark Kellogg wished me good luck before I shot,” said Weaver. “And then he said ‘congrats’ afterward when I walked off the court. It sounds weird, but people were asking if I played in college – and people stopped and congratulated me in the airport. It was just fun.”
Weaver is no stranger to hitting shots from beyond the arc as he dropped in 104 3-pointers during his junior and senior seasons at Western. The All-Mid-Indiana Conference performer averaged 13.4 points per game during his final campaign.
Surprisingly, he is better known for his baseball skills after helping the Panthers win the IHSAA Class 3A state championship in 2012 as a pitcher. He was a two-time all-conference performer and twice led the Kokomo American Legion Post 6 squad to the state championship game. He took the Municipal Stadium hill for the Kokomo Jackrabbits last summer before stepping away from the game this year after pitching for the Titans of IU South Bend last spring.
But even with a baseball state championship and a college pitching resume, it will be shooting baskets in front of 76,000 fans that will be Austin Weaver’s “One Shining Moment.” It was a once-in-a-lifetime trip that he will never forget.