The scene had seemingly played out just three weeks earlier, 40 miles east on I-64. William and Mary (22-9, 12-6), holding a sizeable halftime lead on Northeastern (20-12, 14-4), had wavered in the second half, surrendering its once 14-point advantage in the final minute. But just like that Jan. 13 home win over the Huskies, the Tribe’s resilience came through – this time with the stakes much higher.
Trailing by a point with 37 seconds to play, senior guard David Schneider sank perhaps the biggest shot of a career predicated on clutch performances, a three-pointer from the right wing that would send the College past Northeastern 47-45 in the semifinals of the CAA tournament Sunday night.
A wild thirty seconds later and the Tribe was on its way to its second CAA championship game in three years.
“You always put yourself in that situation, hitting a big shot down the stretch,” Schneider said. “I was just fortunate enough to get a good look. When it left my hand, it felt right.”
The basket was the final score in a razor-tight contest between two senior-driven teams fighting to extend their seasons. But it was far from the final moment. Northeastern would take another seven shots in a wild last possession, but was unable to find the net.
“The last thirty seconds were an eternity,” Head Coach Tony Shaver said. “We defended the initial play twice, exceptionally well. And we got a little lucky, but we deserve a little luck.”
Guard Matt Janning, who’s sank more than his share of clutch threes over a distinguished career, got a good look from the top of the arc off a designed play. Then four more Northeastern players would get off attempts at the basket, but the Tribe defense held strong — a fitting testament to a squad built this season on will often as much as talent.
“When you have possessions like that, where its just batting around like a pinball, for us to stop them so many times, it’s a lot of resilience,” Schneider said.
Resilience is a necessary characteristic for any squad looking to win a conference tournament. And few demonstrate it better than the College.
The squad came out hot in the first half, taking a 31-17 lead into the break. But the Huskies stormed back after halftime, clamping down on the defensive end to ignite a quick 9-0 run to pull back into the game. Northeastern finally caught the Tribe with 8:57 left in the contest, with a Janning layup knotting the score at 37-apiece.
From then on, it came down to a test of wills between two teams that started seven seniors between them.
“We’ve been through some tough battles,” senior guard Sean McCurdy said. “A lot of them have gone our way. Some of them haven’t, but they have really prepared us for these games.”
The College gritted down to outscore the Huskies 10-8 the rest of the way, with seniors supplying eight of those points, including the final clutch trey.
As a result, the battle-tested Tribe advanced to the CAA final against a talented Old Dominion squad that came from 12-points down in the second half to beat Virginia Commonwealth 73-69 in overtime.
The team’s four seniors, Schneider, McCurdy, forward Danny Sumner and center Steven Hess, have all been there before, losing to George Mason in the 2008 championship game.
But the changes in the program over that span are palpable.
“Last time we were here it felt like a cinderalla story,” Schneider said. “But this time it definitely feels like we belong to be here. It shows how far our program has come in the last few years.”
Adding to that pressure will be the ubiquitous elephant in the room of Tribe basketball, one of only five longtime division-I schools never to have reached the NCAA tournament. When the squad began the season on a 14-3 spurt, questions arose of whether this team could be the first to end that streak. Tomorrow they will thicken the air of the Richmond Coliseum with added significance, regardless of how hard the College works to blot it out.
“This team doesn’t deserve the burden of our past,” Shaver said. “This team deserves to be where they are in the championship game, and they deserve to carry no other burden with them. We’ll concentrate on our execution tomorrow and not worry about the many other implications which could be a part of it.”
Across the court will be Old Dominion, the CAA’s regular season champion and a squad that validated that achievement with a gutsy win over a dangerous VCU squad earlier Sunday.
The Monarchs swept the Tribe in a pair of games this season, prevailing narrowly in Williamsburg and comfortably in Norfolk.
But the College is not ready for its season, and the careers of four standout seniors, to end yet.
“We definitely owe ODU some payback,” Schneider said. “You couldn’t picture a better fairytale ending than for us to win the championship as seniors.”
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