BALTIMORE — Maybe the Hofstra Pride’s excruciating, last-second, double overtime loss to the William & Mary Tribe in the Colonial Athletic Association tournament semifinals wasn’t so bad after all.
Given the Pride’s lack of regular season success (losing by eight and 11 points, while allowing an average of 85 points) against the Northeastern Huskies this year, and the way third-seeded Northeastern handled top-seeded William & Mary in the CAA Championship Game at Royal Farms Arena on Monday night, it’s fair to assume that fifth-seeded Hofstra might not have won its first CAA title anyway.
The Huskies (23-11, 15-6 CAA) did, in impressive fashion, 72-61, over the Tribe (20-12, 14-7 CAA), to earn their first NCAA tournament berth since 1991, when they were North Atlantic Conference (now the America East) champions.
Meanwhile, William & Mary will have to wait at least another year in its elusive pursuit of reaching the NCAA tournament, as the Tribe — along with Army, Northwestern, St. Francis (New York) and The Citadel — remain one of only five original Division I teams never to have reached the Big Dance.
“We wanted to put that… history stuff to rest, but we didn’t,” head coach Tony Shaver said. “And we’ll live with that. I do believe if we keep knocking on the door, the door’s gonna open. We’ve been [to the CAA finals] four out of the last eight years (including the past two) and we’re gonna keep working till we get [back] here. We’ve got a good team coming back next year.”
William & Mary’s biggest obstacle this time was redshirt junior Quincy Ford, the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, who led all scorers by halftime (with 15 points) and overall (22 points) on highly efficient 8-of-10 shooting (including 4 of 5 makes from 3-point range).
Junior guard David Walker scored complemented Ford with 15 points while reserve senior guard Caleb Donnelly matched a career high with 13 points in only 16 minutes and redshirt senior forward Scott Eatherton added 12 points for the Huskies.
That group scored all but 10 of Northeastern’s points while shooting a blistering 64.7 percent (22-for-34) collectively. Ford, Walker and Donnelly combined for 61.1 percent (11-for-18) shooting from behind the arc.
Behind their hot shooters, the Huskies made three more shots (26-23) from the floor while taking 16 less (44 to 60) than the Tribe, which was held to just 38.3 percent shooting.
CAA Player of the Year, senior guard Marcus Thornton, led William & Mary with 20 points. Sophomore guard Daniel Dixon scored 15 for the Tribe, one day after sending the top seed into the championship game on a clutch, left-corner 3-pointer with under a second left in a second overtime period, during the semifinals, against Hofstra.
Junior forward Terry Tarpey added 10 points and a team-high seven rebounds for William & Mary, which staged a huge comeback that eventually fizzled out in the final minute.
Thornton and sophomore guard Omar Prewitt (only four points) were held in check after making history against the Pride. They combined for 70 of the Tribe’s 85 points in the semifinals as Thornton set a CAA tournament record with 37 points and Prewitt scored a career-high 33, making the duo the only teammates to each score 30 points in the same CAA tournament game.
Helping Northeastern set the tone early, Ford scored eight straight points after Eatherton rolled in a right-handed hook shot on the game’s first possession.
On William & Mary’s initial trip, Ford got a steal and an easy bucket the other way before he drained consecutive 3-pointers to give the Huskies a quick 10-0 lead and force a Tribe time out just 2:15 into contest.
“Just being aggressive,” Ford said was the difference for him in that stretch and throughout the game.
But the Huskies’ humble star was quick to deflect any of his accolades while chalking up his own personal accomplishments to simply being a byproduct of Northeastern’s team success.
“All the confidence my teammates give me, [that] my coaches give me, they told me to set the tone,” Ford said. “I had so much energy flowing through my body.
“I don’t know what it was,” Ford added with a laugh, “but it was unbelievable, unbelievable. Once I seen the first one go in, there you go.
“This is a great team win. I just can’t speak enough about my teammates and what they did tonight. From top to bottom, [including] all the coaches, it’s a great team win.”
Holding his Most Outstanding Player Award, Ford added, “This MVP [trophy] is impossible without them. They get all the credit for this, not me.”
As it did while surviving against Hofstra a day earlier, the Tribe rebounded well from adversity, but not enough this time.
Six points from Tarpey, five by Thornton and four from senior forward Tom Schalk (eight points), keyed a 15-5 run that tied the game at 15-apeice after nearly seven minutes.
Freshman guard Devon Begley moved Northeastern back on top with a left corner 3-pointer (for his only points) but Dixon tied the game for the second time, at 18-all, on a left wing trey.
A layup and 3-pointer by Ford capped a run of nine straight Huskies points to give Northeastern a 29-20 lead with 3:44 left in the opening half.
Another triple by Dixon cut the margin to 31-26, but after Thornton was blocked in the lane on William & Mary’s next possession, sophomore guard T.J. Williams scored his only points (on a jumper) and Donnelley added his first points of the night (on a 3-pointer), over the final 1:33 of the half, to double the Huskies’ lead to 36-26 by halftime.
“I thought we got really out of character as a ball club,” Shaver said. “We didn’t guard the ball very well defensively… and we really didn’t run our offense the way we’ve run it all year long.
“Sometimes, when you get down 10-0, it maybe changes the way you approach the game a little bit. We had to expend so much energy getting back into it… and it’s probably energy we didn’t have tonight. We really had an uphill battle from the very beginning of the ballgame.”
Picking up where he left off in the first half, Ford opened the second stanza with a 3-pointer to give Northeastern a 39-26 advantage before Thornton immediately answered with his own trey to get the Tribe back within 10 points.
Walker hit a triple to make it a 13-point game again, but Williams, who was doing a good job defending Thornton, was whistled for his first two fouls in a span of 30 seconds by the under-16 timeout. Avoiding any further fouls, however, Williams was able to stay aggressive with guarding Thornton.
Following the time out, Thornton scored on a back door dunk before Prewitt and Tarpey added layups to get William & Mary within seven points and the Tribe faithful — which dominated the attendance — on its feet.
After going more than 5½ minutes without a point, Northeastern pushed its lead to 62-40, with 5:55 left, on a decisive 20-5 run.
An Eatherton layup made it 67-45, with 3:39 left, but 16 straight points — including eight from Thornton and six from Dixon — got the crowd back into the game and the Tribe within six points, with 35.5 seconds to play.
“We just didn’t want anybody to leave early,” head coach Bill Coen joked. “They’re a great team and you can’t keep ‘em down for too long. We witnessed that at home. I think we were up about 20 and Marcus Thornton scored eight points in about 22 seconds. They’re so explosive.“
Two free throws by Eatherton with 30.3 seconds left, pushed the lead to eight points before Dixon and Thornton each missed 3-point attempts on the Tribe’s next possession, to seal William & Mary’s fate.
“Most teams would get down [that much] and folded, but we really showed a lot of fight,” Shaver said. “I wish we would have had that fight for 40 minutes tonight, but we really showed a lot of character, a lot of toughness in hanging in there. And we gave ourselves an outside shot of winning that ballgame, too.”
Coen admitted that he didn’t do anything special to stop the Tribe’s final charge.
“There was no trickery or anything,” he said. “It was just, ‘We’ve got to dig in, because the time is now,’ and we had an opportunity to do something special.’ And these guys didn’t want to let it slip away.”
Perhaps seeing that happen to William & Mary last year might have motivated Coen’s squad to close the deal against the Tribe, which had a six-point lead with only 70 seconds left in last year’s CAA finals, before letting top-seeded Delaware score the final seven points, as Thornton missed the last shot at the final buzzer.
“I was feeling for them last year when we had a chance to go [to the NCAA tournament] in last year’s finals,” Coen said. “This was just our weekend. The kids were excited from start to finish… everybody was so dialed in the entire week leading up to this, we just felt really good coming into the tournament. And we felt if we [showed] the best version of ourselves, we could give ourselves an outstanding chance.”
After classily praising Shaver and his team, Coen admitted, “It took one of our best efforts to get by them this evening.”
Reflecting on what that Huskies accomplished, Coen said, “I couldn’t be more proud of this basketball team. They’re made up of a very special group of young men who are willing to buy in, are very compassionate for their teammates, better people than players — and they’re pretty good players — they just wouldn’t be denied this weekend.
“This team faced adversity throughout the year and they never stopped believing in themselves… [or] the coaching staff… [or] the mission.”
Just after the final buzzer sounded, Ford ran over to hug his mother in the stands.
Later, he said, “Just all the emotions running through my body coming off this great win and seeing my mom and all the sacrifices she’s made, just reminded me of the staff, my teammates, all the sacrifices they made for one another. It was just a great feeling to see her and to celebrate with her as well as my team.
Still a bit emotional while addressing the media, sitting next to Coen, Eatherton and Walker, Ford said softly, “It’s such a great win… all the hard work we put in all summer, in the fall, the 6 a.m.’s, everything. William & Mary’s a great team. They came out and battled [and] rattled us a little bit. [But we] stuck together [and] finished strong.”
If William & Mary wasn’t going to win the CAA tournament title, seeing Northeastern win it instead didn’t surprise Shaver are all.
“Northeastern is a team that outside of our own, that I felt was the best team in this league all year long,” he said. “Back in the preseason, I picked them Number 1 [since] you can’t vote for your own team.”
Although disappointed, Shaver was pleased with what the Tribe was able to accomplish.
“I’m very proud of this team,” he said. “I’m very proud of this season. I mean, who would’ve thought last year… losing six seniors, that we would be back in this [championship] game?”
Shaver also recalled a vision that he and Thornton discussed when Thornton was recruited.
“He and I stood in the gym in Kaplan Arena (at William & Mary) together and [I told him], ‘I think you’re good enough to help us put a banner up in this place.’ And he did. For the first time in our [school] history, we’ll put up a championship regular season banner. We didn’t get the one we want tonight, but we fought for that [regular season banner]. He’s grown as much as a person and a player as anyone I’ve coached in my career.”
Speaking on Thornton’s role as a mentor, Dixon said, “On the court, off the court, he’s definitely had one of the biggest impacts on my career, I think I’ve ever had in my life. He’s like a brother to me and I’m just down that we couldn’t do it for him this game… I think he’s the best player ever to play at William & Mary and I just hope for him to do well in the future.”
While Thornton will end his college career without an NCAA tournament appearance, there’s still the assuredness of at least one more game, in the National Invitation Tournament for he and the rest of the Tribe as this year’s CAA regular season winners.
“It’s good for us, another national tournament,” Thornton said. “Obviously, not our main goal, so we’re disappointed in that. But we appreciate being able to make the NIT.”
As for what Northeastern will bring to the NCAA tournament, Eatherton said, “We have a talented team. We have a lot of skilled guys on our team who can shoot. And when the shots are going down, I think it’s really hard to stop us.
“We bought into playing with so much energy tonight, that it didn’t matter who was scoring. Nobody cared. It was just really unselfish, and that’s what we’ve been preaching the whole year. Whenever we’ve been able to execute that, we’ve been able to come out on top.”
Now that the Huskies did that enough times to cut down the nets in Baltimore, they’ll look forward to see which team they might be able to cause some trouble in the NCAA tournament.
“There’s nothing like Selection Sunday,” Coen said. “It’s a culmination of a lot of years of hard work and dedication and I’m so excited to share that experience with our team… we have everything to be grateful for and we’re grateful for the opportunity to go dancing.”