When junior guard Marcus Thornton’s final shot bounced off the back of the rim and fell to the court, and Delaware celebrated in triumph, I thought that it couldn’t be. It was a morbid mind trick: William and Mary would still find a way to win and qualify for its first-ever appearance in the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament.
Reality slowly set in. Two lessons came with the shellshock of Monday night’s loss in the Colonial Athletic Association tournament final: one sobering and one gratifying. First, there is no “should” in sports. Having an inspiring narrative on one’s side is much less important than having a 6’9”, 260-pound center.
Second, no one can say this program isn’t capable of qualifying for the NCAA tournament. If the glass ceiling isn’t broken, it’s in need of serious repair. History isn’t on the side of the Tribe, but recent play stands to change that in the near future.
Coming so close to the apex only to watch the boulder roll all the way back down the hill was particularly galling for fans. However, as soon as the final shot hit the ground, Tribe fans’ disappointment was easily outweighed by pride in the team’s effort. No one is likely to forget the final 1 minute, 10 seconds when the Tribe dropped a 6-point lead just as no one will likely forget how remarkable a run it took to get to that point.
The future is bright for the Tribe. This season’s squad, however, deserves to be celebrated before the focus shifts to next year. From an eight-point opening day loss to Hampton to the brink of an NCAA tournament bid, this year’s team was the kind any fan could get behind.
The Tribe’s main asset was its depth. Head coach Tony Shaver deployed a rotation of nine players nearly every game, a luxury that few opposing teams enjoyed and one that speaks to just how committed this team was.
One player stood out above the rest. Though Thornton misfired on the final shot, it was the right play and there’s no doubt that he was the right player. Thornton had one of the finest individual seasons in program history. Players like Thornton come once every other generation, and we should appreciate how lucky we are to watch a player of his caliber in a green and gold jersey.
Each senior’s performance during the tournament testified to the program Shaver has built. There was guard Julian Boatner knocking down three-pointers just as he has throughout his whole career; guard Brandon Britt willing his team back from the depths against Charleston; and forward Kyle Gaillard dogging the opponent’s best player for 30 minutes each night. Who could forget forward Tim Rusthoven? His beautiful baby-hook will live on in College history.
A wise man once said, “moral victories are for minor-league coaches.” Yes, the Tribe lost Monday night’s game and with it the chance to dance. However, after three games that reminded fans just how compelling college sports can be, it would be misguided to say that the Tribe missed out on making history.
Particular moments in the 2014 CAA Tournament will long be etched in my mind: Shaver’s early second-half timeout against Charleston, Thornton’s strip of Towson’s Jerrelle Benimon with ten seconds left in the semifinal, and Prewitt’s exclamation-mark dunk to lead the 12-point comeback against Delaware. History is comprised of memories, not milestones, and by that marker this team was as historic as any.
Delaware was the better team Monday night, just as it was the better team all season. Credit Shaver for getting his team to compete as hard and as intelligently as it did over three games: No team in the field looked as mentally focused as the Tribe.
The Tribe’s appearance in the conference final was the program’s third in seven years. Shaver oversees a program that’s usually touted as a punchline because of its dubious history, but this year’s squad proved once again that what is past is merely pretext. The Tribe now boasts one of the most consistent programs in the CAA, and a tournament bid likely won’t be too far in the future.
The mustache has been beaten, not broken. The mustache will live to dance another day.