Head Coach Tony Shaver sat alone before the podium at North Carolina’s Carmichael Arena and looked down. William and Mary (22-11) had just fallen 80-72 to the Tar Heels in the first round of the National Invitational Tournament. Tears welled in his eyes as he gained his composure. Finally, Shaver raised his head and spoke.
“I’ve coached a long time,” he said, pausing to catch his breath. “But I’ve probably never been prouder of a group of kids than I am of these guys.”
Shaver’s squad had just taken the defending national champion Tar Heels to the wire, turning a 10-point halftime deficit into a late second-half lead before succumbing to the North Carolina pressure down the stretch.
“The way they played, the way they keep their composure, the schedule they faced this year, to play as well as they did was very impressive to me,” Shaver said. “I’m happy to be a part of it.”
The game got off to an ominous start for the Tribe, as Carolina scored the first nine points, sending the sellout crowd into a frenzy. But the College fought back behind a barrage of three pointers from senior guard David Schneider, senior forward Danny Sumner and sophomore forward JohnMark Ludwick.
The squad shot a season-high 43 attempts from beyond the arc, making 16. Schneider buried seven of his 15 three-point attempts as part of a 21-point, eight-assist performance in his final collegiate game.
“[Schneider] played the way he always plays. I can’t imagine playing without him. I really truly can’t,” Shaver said. “His effort, his intensity, his heart, are always on display. You won’t find a kid playing the game harder than he does anywhere.”
But soon shooters fatigue set in. Junior center Marcus Kitts, who amassed 12 points on six-of-seven shooting while guarding North Carolina’s big men, fouled out with 3:43 remaining and the Tribe up by three points. The Tar Heels dominated the glass in Kitts’s absence, outscoring the College 11-0 in the last four minutes.
Without Kitts the Tribe’s offense fell apart.
“Our rotations weren’t right at the end of the game.We had people out of position, but I think [North Carolina’s] pressure forced the turnovers,” Shaver said. “They really overplayed our pass to the post and got some key turnovers in that spot.”
Sophomore forward Quinn McDowell did not play Tuesday due to a right-ankle injury suffered in the Tribe’s CAA-semifinal win over Northeastern. With McDowell on the bench, the Tribe was missing one of its better defensive players on the interior and its best three-point shooter on the season.
McDowell’s absence was felt on the game’s deciding play with under a minute remaining and the Tar Heels up 75-72. Senior center Steven Hess was forced to the high post, McDowell’s spot in the offense, and a Tribe pass intended for Hess was stolen by North Carolina forward Tyler Zeller. Zeller came around Hess’s back and took the ball the length of the court for an uncontested slam dunk. The basket stretched the Tar Heel lead to five, and the home squad never looked back.
The turnover was one of 17 for the Tribe, which was outscored 38-20 in the paint and 10-2 on fast-break points. Although the College shot 41.9 percent for the game, the squad failed to make a field goal over the final 5:09.
Despite the final score, when the buzzer sounded a palpable sigh of relief echoed out of the Carmichael Arena crowd, serving as an undeniable sign that the transformation of the Tribe under Shaver from laughing stock to legitimate contender was complete.
“I remember telling our guys six years ago, I think we came here and got demolished in a ball game. We talked then about how we want our program to get to the point where we can walk in these arenas expecting to win and our kids did that this year,” Shaver said.