A fresh changing of the guard

From the beginning, he seemed to be overwhelmed by it all.

I interviewed Elon freshman guard Austin Hamilton before the 2011-2012 men’s basketball season about the schedule for the year.

His quotes were somewhat short, but his enthusiasm was high.

“One of the reasons I came here was in the past seasons, they played a really tough schedule, ACC teams and such,” he said. “Going over to San Diego State, I was never expecting that, so that’s going to be exciting.”

Elon freshman guard Austin Hamilton (10) averaged 9.2 points and 2.8 assists per game this season. File photo by Al Drago.

He especially was looking forward to playing the University of North Carolina, in Chapel Hill, in the famed Dean Dome, where college basketball legends such as Michael Jordan, Grant Hill (for Duke) and Tyler Hansbrough (I said “college basketball legends”) have played.

“That’s been a dream of mine, playing in an environment like that,” he said. “I can’t wait just gonna go out there, compete and do what we do best.”

While the North Carolina game did not go well for the Phoenix (a 100-62 loss Dec. 29, a game in which Elon was down 53-19), Austin Hamilton’s first year in the maroon and gold was a surprise for head coach Matt Matheny.

“Here’s a guy who we knew had talent, and we weren’t ready to start him when he got here, and then (sophomore guard) Jack (Isenbarger) got hurt,” Matheny said. “So he’s kind of thrust into a starting position.”

Against the University of South Carolina in Alumni Gym Nov. 15. The first time a Bowl Championship Series conference team had come to Elon. And what did Austin do? He threw a little 12 points and three rebounds in 32 minutes at the Gamecocks to help the Phoenix to a 58-53 victory.

“Being an SEC team, that’s a big deal,” he said. “Being on SportsCenter, that’s just icing on the cake.”

That’s right, SportsCenter. The next day, two of Hamilton’s points (on a nice step-back jumper) were featured as the clip from Elon’s victory, the No. 10 play on ESPN’s flagship show’s Top 10.

“That’s a dream come true,” he told me following Elon’s 109-67 win over Lynchburg College Dec. 11. “I’ve always dreamed about being on SportsCenter. Let alone my freshman year, it’s a blessing. I was speechless when that happened. I wasn’t expecting it. I was expecting Lucas’ dunk or something like that. I got on there and it was great to see.”

He also hit his first collegiate buzzer-beater. His last-second three helped the Phoenix defeat the Naval Academy 51-48 Dec. 3. At that game, a couple of fans had made a poster of a $10 bill with Hamilton’s face on it.

When I asked him about it, he said, “It’s great. We’ve got a great student section. They’re always supporting us.” The bill? “That’s pretty cool.”

Hamilton’s hot start helped the Phoenix to 7-2 record to begin the season, the program’s best record at the start since 1990-1991. He saw himself in the starting lineup for 19 straight games as a freshman. With Isenbarger missing a few early games due to a shoulder injury, he played the point guard position, something done effectively in the past couple years by Chris Long.

“Chris was a great player,” he said before the season. “I’m just going to try to play my game and learn from everybody else. I try to play my game and help our team out.”

And he sure did all of that. Seeing as how he will probably be the starting point guard next season for the Phoenix, he thinks that’s an area where he will need to improve.

“Being the point guard, you’ve got to be more vocal on and off the court,” he told me after the season. “Coaches and teammates have been helping me try to become more vocal, being a leader out there.”

Hamilton said that he learned a lot from outgoing senior guard Drew Spradlin.

“Coming in as a freshman, you kind of always have that senior that will show you the ropes,” he said. “Drew was perfect for me. He taught me a lot of things about this program and how to become a better player and person. It’s a big loss for us and for me, because he did a lot for me.

“If I get that role in the starting lineup (that was Spradlin’s), I’m excited and will try to do the best I can to fill his spot.”

Something he did learn from is missing six games due to mononucleosis. Hamilton was averaging 10.8 points per game when he went out Feb. 2 and scored just 14 points in five games and 59 minutes when he returned.

“It was unfortunate, and I wish I could have played in those games, but things happen,” he said. “It’s how you come back. Just sitting down and seeing different things in practice, learning things about different players, the personnel, it definitely benefitted me.”

Matheny said that Austin was “in line, at least in the conversation, for SoCon Freshman of the Year before he got sick.” Hamilton was named to the Southern Conference All-Freshman team by both media and coaches for his play this season despite missing those games.

His coach said that Hamilton went through what any freshman goes through and learned from it.

“I think, for any freshman, when you come in, you don’t exactly know what it’s all about, and now he knows,” Matheny said. “Freshmen have to figure out that it’s a tough, long year. The tough times as a freshman seem overwhelming, like in January when you’re in your fifth game in ten days. But when you get to the other side, it’s not all that bad, you’ve just got to fight your way through it.”

Hamilton started 19 games this season for the Phoenix, helping them to 15 wins. File photo by Molly Carey.

His teammates are very complimentary of him.

“He was huge for us this year,” Isenbarger said. “He’s a special kid, not only on the court, but he’s one of the nicest people I know. He’s dedicated on and off the court. He cares about his teammates and you can tell. That’s why he’s going to be a special player because he’s committed fully. I’m excited for him because he had such a great year and was able to fight through adversity when he got sick with mononucleosis and was still able to come back and battle tough. He’s one of our toughest kids and I think that’s what you need in a point guard.”

Hamilton sees Isenbarger and himself making a solid combination on the court.

“I think it’s very effective when we’re both on the court,” he said. “I do a pretty good job of getting in the lane and seeing who’s on the wings. Jack, he’s probably one of the best shooters in the country. As a point guard to have him, you can rely on him to knock down shots. We jell together pretty well, so it was a blast playing with him.”

“A blast.” Fulfilling dreams. A buzzer-beater.

Not a bad year.

“It was definitely a lot of fun,” he said of the year. “I’ve always dreamed of playing college ball. There were some ups and downs, but I thought we had a pretty good year. Unfortunately, we didn’t go as far as we wanted to, but I think our program’s headed in the right direction.”

With Austin Hamilton at the point.

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