NY Sports Day

Hofstra Heartbreaker: Last-Second Trey Keeps Pride from CAA Finals

BALTIMORE — One year after missing his chance to give the William & Mary Tribe its first Colonial Athletic Association title, the stage was set for senior guard Marcus Thornton to make an heroic shot and send his team back to the CAA finals.

But as the CAA Player of the Year, having already scored a tournament record 37 points, dribbled up the left wing with time running down and the Tribe’s season on the line, Thornton surprised everyone by not taking the final shot like he did when his last-second jumper missed as William & Mary fell by a point in last year’s CAA finals to Delaware.

This time, Thornton unselfishly let his teammate, fellow junior guard Daniel Dixon, become an unexpected hero.

Driving past junior guard Malik Nichols and junior forward Ameen Tanksley with his long, trademark dreadlocks swaying behind him, Thornton began to rise for a potential game-winning jumper. But as Thornton hung in the air and thought about shooting, sophomore guard Brian Bernardi came over to help, leaving Dixon in the corner.

Leaping while outstretched with his left arm, Bernardi would have contested a shot by Thornton well.

Only Thornton had another idea. In mid-air, he alertly found Dixon standing alone in the left corner.

Bernardi was unable to recover in time and Dixon, who had made only one of his five previous shots in the game while playing on a bad leg, drained a quick, catch-and-shoot 3-pointer with only eight-tenths of a second left to essentially write an end to an absolute classic.

A Bernardi heave from his own baseline, aimed for his teammates at the other end of the floor, hit the scoreboard stationed above the CAA Championship logo at midcourt, allowing Thornton to catch an inbounds pass, run out the clock and ignite a celebration among the William & Mary faithful that was steeped in overwhelming relief as much as euphoric joy.

And just like that, Hofstra’s heart was broken in perhaps the greatest CAA tournament game ever played — a 92-91, double overtime thriller — that was the definition of March Madness during the first of two semifinal games at Royal Farms Arena in Baltimore on Sunday afternoon.

“It’s hard to know what to say,” head coach Joe Mihalich an inconsolably said afterwards. “[There were] a lot of emotional guys in [our] locker room. You knew, probably with a millisecond left, somebody was going to have a broken heart today. It had to be a fabulous basketball game to watch and you knew somebody was going to have a broken heart. Unfortunately, it’s us.”

On the other side, head coach Tony Shaver began his postgame conference sounding more like a true college hoops fan than a coach that was ever so fortunate to land his team in the CAA finals for a second consecutive season and for the fourth time in the past eight years.

“Wow, what a great college basketball game,” he said. “It’s the type of game [in which] you feel bad for anybody that doesn’t win it.  I really admire the way [Hofstra] played. They had a great ball game. But… we’ve got a tough bunch of kids in [our] locker room. We talked about coming into this tournament and not blinking. We didn’t blink [today]. We showed incredible toughness on the floor. I thought [Hofstra] did as well. You’ve got to be a little lucky to win games like that but you also have to make plays and our guys made plays. Just a gutty performance.”

While the loss was an excruciating moment which may forever haunt the fifth-seeded Pride (20-13, 11-9 CAA), the top-seeded Tribe (20-11, 14-6 CAA) get another chance — in Monday night’s CAA final against third-seeded Northeastern — at removing its name from the short list of only five original men’s Division I schools (along with Army, Northwestern, St. Francis, New York and The Citadel) which have never reached the NCAA tournament.

To get to that point, William & Mary — which finished in the first-ever four-way tie for first place at the end of a CAA regular season, earning tiebreakers over second-seeded North Carolina-Wilmington, Northeastern and fourth-seeded James Madison — had to survive a roller coaster of emotions during a game that featured nine ties, 12 lead changes and each team shooting a very solid 49 percent from the field.

Hofstra was in a bit of trouble early after Bernardi (17 points, 5-for-12 from 3-point range) missed from behind the arc on the Pride’s first two possessions, resulting in layups by Thornton and sophomore guard Omar Prewitt ( who complemented Thornton with a career high 33 points while shooting 9-for-14 from the floor and going 12-of-18 at the foul line) to give William & Mary a 4-0 lead less than a minute in.

Another Prewitt layup and a Thornton 3-pointer made it 9-2, but senior center Moussa Kone (11 points, six rebounds), who had Hofstra’s first six points, scored the next four points before a trey by junior forward Terry Tarpey (12 points, game-high 10 rebounds) and a 3-point play from Prewitt extended the Tribe’s lead to 15-6.

A left wing 3-pointer by graduate guard Dion Nesmith (21 points, five assists) provided Hofstra’s first points by someone other than Kone, but two free throws by Prewitt (to give him as many points as the Pride) and a layup from reserve senior forward Tom Schalk (two points) put the Tribe up 19-9 after 7:25.

Hofstra finally began to tighten its defense up at that point. After a Thornton jumper — immediately answering one by Tanksley (the Pride’s second-leading scorer this season, held to just four points, on 2-of-9 shooting, in 41 minutes) — gave William & Mary a 21-11 lead just before the midpoint of the half, the Tribe went more than five minutes without a field goal.

All eight points scored in the game by freshman center Rokas Gustys (who also had nine rebounds) came during that stretch, on two layups and a pair of energizing dunks. Those, along with five points from junior guard Juan’ya Green (team-high 26 points) keyed a 15-1 run that resulted in the Pride’s first lead, as Hofstra went up, 26-22, with 5:32 left in the opening half.

Thornton later responded with three consecutive 3-pointers to singlehandedly erase a four-point Hofstra lead and  put William & Mary ahead, 34-29, with 1:48 to go in the half.

Green ended Thornton’s run with his own triple before Prewitt made the second of two free throws in the final seconds of the half to send the Tribe to the locker room with a 35-32 lead.

A layup and jumper by Nesmith to start the second half regained the lead for the Pride at 36-35, but seven points from Thornton highlighted a 12-4 spurt that put William & Mary ahead, 47-40.

Hofstra responded with the next 13 points — including four from Green, and then five from Nesmith — to go up, 53-47, with 9:44 left.

Kone then answered a Prewitt 3-pointer with a jumper to give Hofstra a 55-50 lead, but layups by Prewitt and Thornton trimmed the margin to 55-54.

As if it weren’t enough that Thornton set a single-game record for points in a CAA tournament contest and Prewitt posted a career scoring-high, that duo also made history as the first teammates to each score at least 30 points in the same CAA tournament game.

After Dixon answered a Nesmith layup with a try to tie the game at 57-apeice, the next four buckets were all 3s — two from Bernardi (after he missed his first four shots, all from 3-point range), sandwiched around a Nesmith 3 –as the Pride opened a 66-57 lead, with 5:29 to go, and seemed to be in control.

But no lead was safe in this one, and William & Mary was prepared to keep its composure and rally multiple times.

“We talk about that a lot.,” Thornton said. “We talked about coming into the tournament, we were going to have ups and downs, and it’s just about being mentally tough. Everything’s not going to go your way all the time, but it’s up to you to keep fighting. We gathered right there, regrouped and stayed tough… and got a great win.”

Helping his team find itself, Shaver had some ideas on how to slow Hofstra down late in the second half.

“They’re such a potent offensive team,” Shave said of the Pride. “They’re really hard to guard. We had success in the past with our zone against them, but they really ate it up [today]. They did a really good job attacking it. Our man was our better defense and… [around] the five or six-minute mark [of the second half], we changed to a third defense and it probably got us back in the ballgame. We played a 1-3-1 extended zone and really had a lot of stops during that stretch… and we rebound the ball better out of it.”

Continuing his career-best game, Prewitt made a 3-pointer to get the Tribe within 68-64, with 3:58 left in the second half. After a Tanksley jumper pushed Hofstra’s lead to six points, Prewitt had a dunk, and 19 seconds later, he made one of two free throws to cut the Pride’s lead to 70-68 with two minutes to play in the half.

Another 3-pointer by Bernardi extended Hofstra’s edge to five points, but a 3-point play by Thornton drew William & Mary to within 73-71 with 39.7 seconds left in regulation.

After Nesmith missed the front end of a one-and-one about 10 seconds later, Thornton tied the game at 73-apeice on a pair of free throws with 23 seconds left in the half.

Kone had a chance to advance Hofstra to the next round in the final two seconds of regulation, but a leaning hook shot in the lane caromed off the rim to send the game into the first extra session.

Arguably Hofstra’s best player for much of the game until Green made some big plays down the stretch, Nesmith was lost for Pride when he fouled out just 24 seconds into the first overtime. But he remained positive even from the bench.

“My thought process was the game wasn’t over,” he said. “I had full trust in my teammates to pull a win out and I was just rooting my heart out for them to get it done.

“I love my teammates. These guys had my back from day one. They gave me everything I got. When I went out with the fouls, they just picked me up on the bench and said, ‘Don’t worry about it, we’re gonna stay in this and win this game.’ I wouldn’t trade these guys for anyone in the world.”

Mihalich later asked rhetorically, “Who played harder than him?

“There were a lot of guys out there that played their heart and soul out, but no one more than Dion. Maybe some guys matched it, but no one more than Dion.

“And clearly, if we had pulled that off, and stopped [William & Mary] on that last possession, to have won it with key guys on the bench who had fouled out (Gustys fouled out later in the first overtime), it would have made that all the more remarkable. But Dion’s a coach’s dream. We’re better when he’s in the game, and he makes his teammates better.”

Scoring the first five points of the initial overtime, the Tribe got a jumper from Thornton, junior forward Sean Sheldon’s only point (on a free throw) and two more made foul shots by Prewitt to lead, 78-73.

Responding with a 10-2 run over the next 4:03, Bernardi made two 3s and Green (the CAA assist leader, the Pride’s leading scorer this season and a CAA First-Team selection) added another triple to put Hofstra back on top, 83-80, with only two seconds on the shot clock and 52.7 seconds left in the first overtime. The Tribe’s only points during the spurt came on two more Prewitt free throws after a questionable foul on Gustys that had Mihalich standing on the sidelines with his hands on his head in disbelief.

Answering a big shot from the Pride’s best player (as the league’s best player should), Thornton hit his sixth and final trey (on his 13th attempt), pulling up from the right wing, to tie the game at 83-all with 42.1 seconds left in the first overtime.

Tanksley missed a 3-pointer on the next possession, but Gustys grabbed an offensive rebound and was fouled with 10.2 seconds left. However, he missed both free throws.

Defended well, Thornton forced a 3-pointer from the right wing that caught nothing by air as the buzzer sounded to move the game to a second overtime.

A layup by Nichols (four points) gave the Hofstra an 85-83 lead before Prewitt made two free throws to tie the contest at 85-85.

Those were the last points recorded by either Thornton or Prewitt, who together, attempted 43 of William & Mary’s 57 shots. After they combined to score 70 of the Tribe’s first 85 points, the final seven were scored by Tarpey and Dixon.

Tarpey and Bernardi traded a pair of free throws to even the game for a final time at 87-all, with 1:18 remaining.

Driving down the lane through traffic, Tarpey gave William & Mary an 89-87 lead on a layup with 44.7 seconds left.

Green missed a jumper from the left wing on the Pride’s next trip, but Nichols aggressively tracked down the offensive rebound on the opposite wing. He passed to Bernardi, who swung the ball back to Green, who despite being the only player to play all 50 minutes in the game, still had his legs enough to put Hofstra back up, 90-89, on a  clutch 3-pointer with 20.9 seconds to go.

Thornton missed a jumper about nine seconds later, and Kone was fouled by Schalk with 8.3 ticks left.

Kone’s second free throw rattled in, but his first went in and out, leaving the door open for Dixon to send Hofstra home with quite possibly the most agonizing loss in its history.

Describing the winning play, Thornton said, “We had a play set [for me to] try to get to the rim and get any good shot. I saw the defense broke down a little bit, I pulled up from a little deep, and their player left Daniel to come contest me and I saw [Dixon] open. He’s a great shooter. I have great confidence in him and he knocked down a great shot.”

Dixon said, “I think it was just a big play by Marcus, having confidence in me. That’s a big thing for him because he likes to take the last-second shot. He’s usually making them all the time. So it’s big for him to want to give it up at the end. I just trusted it and that was it.”

Shaver added, “What a big play for Daniel Dixon. He’s playing on one leg, he’s just playing on pure guts right now.”

The Tribe’s coach then praised his star and those around him.

“It says a lot about Marcus, it says a lot about our team,” Shaver said. “I think we’ve gotten to the point we are because we’re a very unselfish basketball team. We had to rely way too much on Marcus and Omar tonight. We didn’t have the balance we’d like to have, but that’s what great players do. When you need ‘em, they’re there. And I think it’s a big step for Marcus in trusting his teammates.

“We really felt when we called the [last] time out, that they would probably double or triple team [Thornton] and we tried to put two good shooters in [certain] spots.”

While Hofstra did run multiple players at Thornton on the play, Green said the Pride’s thought process was actually for each player stay home on his own man, something that failed to go according to plan with Bernardi when Thornton appeared as though he might shoot.

“In the huddle, we just told everybody not to help off, and just try to make [Thornton] drive, but they helped off a little bit and [Dixon] got a wide open shot,” Green said dejectedly. “And he just knocked it in.”

Viewing the pain of coming so close to a title game through the prism of transforming his team from a squad that won a total of just 27 games (and no more than 10 in any one season) over its prior three years, to one that posted its first 20-win season in four years, Mihalich, in his second year at Hofstra, was proud of his team’s efforts.

Recalling what he told his team moments after the defeat, Mihalich, said, “I don’t think I made much sense in the locker room just now because it was such an emotional time… we’re a team that’s playing for championships now and that’s what we want to be. I guess we’ll never know, because we won’t be here tomorrow, but we played like a championship team today.

“We asked these kids to leave everything they had on the floor — their heart, their souls, and they did that.

“It’s hard to stand in front of them and realize just how proud you are of ‘em when their hearts are broken and the dream of going to the NCAA tournament is over for Dion and Moussa. I’m really proud of this team. We had chances to win [the game], we had chances to lose it. In the end, it came down to one shot.”

Green, who will be a senior and a strong preseason CAA Player of the Year candidate next season, said the stinging defeat might serve to help Hofstra.

“It should motivate us,” he said. “We should always remember this feeling. When the [CAA tournament] games come next year, we should play much harder and not make mistakes.”

Unlike Green, Nesmith arrived at Hofstra  long before last season and was part of helping lift the program from the ashes of a 7-25 season in which the Pride had as many off-court player arrests as Division I wins.

Even as he’s leaving — whether he’s played his last college game, or if he competes with the Pride in a CBI or CIT tournament this March — he sees a bright future in what he is about to leave behind.

“Now we’re a team that expects to win every game no matter who we play,” he said. “I see that the guys on this team are going to learn from this experience. Some of the games we lost this year, they probably shouldn’t lose next year. And I’m just going to be watching the whole way, hoping they get it done next year.”

Looking likewise toward the future, Mihalich said, “We ain’t goin’ anywhere. We’ve got a great group of guys coming back. As much as this hurts, it’s going to be an experience that will make these guys better and stronger and tougher… and more motivated.”

As for William & Mary, there’s still work to be done Monday night.

Having narrowly escaped, the Tribe isn’t satisfied, least of all its best player.

“Marcus would gladly [trade] that MVP trophy [for] a CAA championship trophy in a heartbeat,” Shaver said.

And even though it was a tremendous win that CAA fans will talk about decades from now as one of the best games they’ve ever seen, William & Mary won’t revel in the aftermath of it for long, particularly since the Tribe was on the flip side of what Hofstra just went through, with even more at stake — when Delaware erased a six-point William & Mary lead by scoring the final seven points, over the last 70 seconds, in the 2014 CAA Championship Game.

“We’ll celebrate for an hour or two, but we came to win the tournament,” Thornton said. “Getting there isn’t good enough for us.”

Especially after last year.


NORTHEASTERN STOPS UNCW, REACHES CAA FINALS FOR 2ND TIME IN 3 YEARS

BALTIMORE — Following a tough bump in the road last season, the Northeastern Huskies are headed right back where they were two years ago in returning to the Colonial Athletic Association tournament finals.

After winning their first CAA regular season title and making an inaugural trip to the conference finals in 2013, the third-seeded Huskies (23-11, 14-6 CAA) rode 21 points from senior forward Scott Eatherton and a quartet of others — junior guard David Walker, senior forward Reggie Spencer, senior guard Caleb Donnelly and freshman guard Devon Begley — who each added 11 points, to a 78-71 semifinal win over the second-seeded North Carolina-Wilmington Seahawks (18-13, 13-7 CAA) at Royal Farms Arena on Sunday.

The last three of those 11-point scorers comprised a Northeastern bench which held a sizable 33-10 scoring edge over UNCW’s reserves on very efficient 11-of-14 shooting collectively.

Speaking of efficiency, freshman guard Jordan Talley led the Seahawks with 18 points on 7-of-9 shooting. He was complemented by 17 points junior guard Craig Ponder and a dozen more from senior guard Addison Spruill.

UNCW scored the first six points on a 3-pointer by Talley and a 3-point play from Addison, but a 3-point play by Begley capped an 8-2 run that tied the game at 8-apeice.

Jumpers by reserve junior forward Dylan Sherwood (eight points) and Ponder put the Seahawks up four pints, but the Huskies answered with the next five points to take their first lead, 13-12.

Consecutive 3-pointers by Jackson  gave UNCW an 18-13 edge just before the midpoint of the opening half, and after a Sherwood trey with 2:36 left in the half kept the margin the same, at 30-25, Northeastern scored the final eight points of the frame, on a jumper by Spencer and 3s from Begley and Walker, to lead, 33-30, by intermission.

A jumper by junior forward Quincy Ford extended Northeastern’s lead to 35-31 early in the second half before a Ponder 3-pointer cut that lead to one point.

An Eatherton layup made it 37-34, but Spruill scored the next four points to start a 9-3 spurt that moved the Seahawks ahead, 43-40.

Two free throws and a jumper by Spencer triggered a 7-2 run that ended with a Donnelley 3-pointer and a 53-49 Huskies lead, with 10:29 left.

Another Eartherton layup pushed Northeastern’s advantage to 59-53, with 5:47 remaining, but that lead was cut in half on a Williams 3-point play 13 seconds later.

However, a dunk by Walker and a Begley jumper gave the Huskies a 63-56 lead, with 4:17 to go.

After Eatherton missed the second of two free throws, a layup by Ponder closed the gap to five points. But a power move to the hoop by Eatherton resulted in a hard-earned 3-point play that gave the Huskies an eight-point cushion.

That edge was matched at 69-61 after two free from Eatherton, but a 3-point play by Tally made it a five-point game, with 2:24 to play.

Ponder drained a left wing trey to cut a six-point deficit in half, at 70-67, with 1:29 left. But a Donnelly 3-pointer doubled the Huskies’ lead back to six points, 22 seconds later. After Ponder missed a 3-pointer, Donnelly made two free throws to put Northeastern up, 77-69, in the final minute, and UNCW got no closer than six points thereafter.

Following four losing seasons during their first six years under current head coach Bill Coen, the Huskies fell in the CAA title game the next year before slipping to 11-21 last season. But after outlasting sixth-seeded Delaware (the defending CAA champion which lost most of its core since last year) by three points in the quarterfinals on Saturday, and ousting UNCW, Northeastern is aiming for its first NCAA tournament berth since 1991 and its first as a CAA member.

The last step in that journey will come Monday night in the CAA title game, when the Huskies try to get by top-seeded William & Mary, which after finishing in the league’s first four-way tie (along with UNCW, Northeastern and James Madison) to end a regular season, comfortably beat eighth-seeded Elon in the quarterfinals before needing a last-second 3-pointer to get a semifinal win over fifth-seeded Hofstra in double overtime.

The tipoff for Monday night’s championship game is scheduled for 7 p.m eastern time.


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