The magic was just inches below the surface, waiting to be unleashed. A deep three-pointer from senior guard Danny Sumner had pulled William and Mary to within five points of conference behemoth Old Dominion with 61 seconds remaining in the CAA championship game, the closest the College had reached since early in the first half.
The Tribe was not supposed to stand a chance against the taller, stronger, more talented Monarchs, but the team that just didn’t quit, so calm and collected in late game situations, was on the verge of pulling out yet another incredible comeback.
Then it all faded late Monday night. The shots that had so often fallen for the College in clutch situations failed to drop, and the season’s heroes could not close the final gap.
The Tribe came no closer than those tantalizing five points and fell to Old Dominion 60-53, temporarily halting a season that had the College and its fans dreaming of heights never before reached.
“The game was heartbreaking,” senior guard David Schneider said. “I felt that we had a chance to win the game in the last minute. But this season has been magical.”
The Tribe’s second CAA championship appearance in three years summed up the squad’s season in a nutshell. At times the College looked helplessly overmatched, unable to contend with a team that has realistic hopes of advancing in the NCAA tournament. At others, the Tribe taunted its raucous fans with defensive intensity and a smoothly-functioning offense that belied a squad that had taken down some of the top teams in the nation. Throughout, William and Mary’s heart and grit kept it in a contest that few in the CAA could have survived.
But in the end, the Monarchs proved too talented and too clutch for the Tribe to overcome.
“It was certainly a tough loss for our ball club,” Head Coach Tony Shaver said. “Old Dominion is an outstanding team and really played well tonight. When they shoot the ball that well, they can beat a lot of people.”
A 10-0 Monarch run midway through the first half put the CAA regular season champions up 27-14 with the College struggling at both ends of the floor. A 7-0 Old Dominion run to start the second half advanced that lead to 14 points at 38-24, and the competitive portion of the night’s proceedings appeared over.
Old Dominion’s powerful zone defense kept the Tribe offense sputtering, while forwards Gerald Lee and Frank Hassell dominated in the offensive paint.
But few squads can match the College in willpower and determination, and the squad’s four seniors would not let their dreams of a first-ever NCAA tournament berth die early.
“I think this team plays with a lot of heart and it kept us in there today,” Shaver said. “We weren’t really that good offensively or execution-wise, but we showed an awful lot of heart.”
The Tribe clamped down defensively, and slowly fought their way back. With 13:03 remaining and the College trailing by 13, senior forward Danny Sumner took over, scoring 10 of the squad’s next 12 points to cut the deficit to seven as the pockets of green and gold throughout the stands roared to life.
Although the game had seemed over, William and Mary had simply refused to lie down.
But Old Dominion is an at-large-quality NCAA tournament team for a reason and they showed why in multiple ways. Each time the College seemed poise to pull close, the Monarchs managed to thwart that effort.
“When we cut it to six or five, they hit a big three or a big two,” Schneider said. “For guys to step up and hit those shots, that’s why they’re the number one seed and CAA champions.”
The Tribe was unable to draw even. But in the attempt, the squad showed 11,200 fans exactly the mettle and resolve that had gotten them to the brink of a conference title.
“I’ve coached for thirty years, but I’ve never been prouder of a team than I am of this one,” Shaver said. “I mean that sincerely. As a coach you always hope that your team is as good as it can be and this team’s pretty close to being as good as it can possibly be.”
After the final buzzer sounded and a gleeful Old Dominion student section had rushed the floor, the Tribe was left to digest the remnants of a season that fell just short of miraculous. The College had earned its first CAA tournament bye, won 22 games for the first time in decades and became the first CAA school to defeat two ACC programs on the road.
Shaver took the time to lobby for an invitation to the NIT; it would be the program’s second appearance in postseason play in 105 years of organized basketball.
“I think we’ll certainly play somewhere,” Shaver said. “I don’t think the NCAA tournament is going to happen for us, but it is a team very deserving of playing in a national tournament. I certainly hope the NIT will give us a strong look. It should, in my opinion.”
For the team’s seniors, the immediate aftermath was more conflicted, looking back on four-year careers that ended just shy of a storybook conclusion.
“It’s not a great feeling because everybody wants to play in the tournament,” Sumner said. “I really wanted to win this game and make it. But we won 20 games, and made it to the championship game twice in my career, so it’s been ok.”
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