LYNCHBURG, Va. — Randolph College, formerly Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, became coeducational in 2007. It began sponsoring men’s basketball the same year. The WildCats won their first game in program history, against Christendom College of the USCAA, and even defeated the significantly more established cross-town Lynchburg Fighting Hornets on their way to a respectable 8-14 inaugural season. In 2007.
That makes this just the seventh year of competitive men’s basketball for the Randolph WildCats. Think about that for a minute. The NCAA has sponsored Division III athletics since 1973; many of the colleges now competing at this level have been fielding teams for far longer than that. Fellow ODACian Hampden-Sydney produced its first basketball All-American way back in 1952. Heck, this website has been covering D3hoops for 12 years longer than Randolph has been playing it.
In the context of that (lack of) history—and the school’s enrollment, which barely tops 500 undergrads—it’s pretty impressive that last season the WildCats earned their first trip to the NCAA Tournament, grabbing an at-large that surprised even coach Clay Nunley following a 21-6 campaign. Perhaps that can be attributed to the coach’s intensity: one fan called Nunley “the Bobby Knight of D3 basketball” after the game. Nunley’s squad lost their first tournament game on the road to Emory, but one must suspect that their experience was more thrilling than disappointing. One must also suspect that, for his returning players, it made them hungry for more.
One of the peculiar things about basketball is the run. It’s a well-known maxim that, in the absence of an extreme mismatch, every team makes a run; every team finds its groove for at least a few minutes a game. Teams down by double-digits erase those deficits so quickly and so often that it’s hard to listen to a game without hearing “and they’ve closed the gap!” at least once. The frequency with which teams beat the statistical odds, only to regress back to the norm a few minutes later, is one of the most exciting anomalies of this sport.
The run can also be misleading. When a team finds that groove out of the gate, as Randolph did on Monday—scoring the first nine points and jumping out to a 12-2 lead—one can think this statistical improbability is in fact the true nature of the contest. Frostburg State seemed so outmatched, so overpowered by WildCats driving the lane for an easy layup or kicking out for a wide-open three, it was easy to believe we had a blowout on our hands when the Bobcats took a timeout just four minutes into the game. The dismantling was so bad, even the home crowd tuned out for awhile; why cheer for every basket if the game isn’t competitive?
Alas, every team makes a run, and soon it was the visitors’ turn. Randolph’s three-point attempts started clanking off the rim and its backcourt fell prey to FSU’s full-court press, Frostburg’s bench erupted for 22 points, and the first half came to a close with the WildCats clinging to a 33-27 lead.
The Randolph Athletic and Dance (RAD) Center is aptly named. In addition to its court—The Den—it features a pool, a dance center, and a relaxation area with a big-screen TV and pretty rad couches.
It’s also tiny. Very, very tiny. But in this context, tiny can be a good thing. Randolph calls The Den “one of the loudest venues in the conference,” and that may be an understatement. When the referees awarded an extra free-throw to Frostburg State following an officiating error (the first FT was declared null, but it had been missed), one fan’s admonishment that “you can’t let your screw-ups screw us!” boomed across the arena. When the next free-throw was missed, his sarcastic “Give him two more!” made the entire crowd burst out laughing. And those excellent acoustics aren’t limited to the bleachers: as it echoed down to the court, I’m fairly certain even FSU coach Webb Hatch cracked a smile.
The Bobcats refused to go away in the second half. When Randolph scored eight of the half’s first 11 points, they responded with 11 of the next 14. When they failed to take their first lead of the game after pulling within one, at 46-45, they kept battling, until finally they broke through. Aaron Bellamy and Kurt Gangler knocked down back-to-back treys with under four minutes on the clock to put the visitors up, 58-56.
Following a pair of Randolph free-throws, the Bobcats’ Nick Smoot drilled a long two to reestablish the two-point lead with a minute to play. It was a huge shot and he knew it, throwing one arm in the air and pumping his chest with the other as he ran back on defense. Bellamy came down with a rebound on that Randolph possession, and Smoot had a chance to put away the home side for good, but he missed the jumper this time, and WildCat senior Mike Ehilegbu pulled down the board.
Nunley put the ball in the hands of Zach Desgain out of the timeout with under 11 seconds to make something happen. He delivered. Fouled hard on the dribble-drive, Desgain hopped right up and drained both from the line. Overtime.
Perhaps exhausted from 30 minutes of full-court pressing, perhaps deflated from failing to hold onto the lead they spend so long acquiring, Frostburg had nothing in the tank in OT. Randolph scored seven of the first nine, Desgain hit a dagger of a triple for a six point lead at 1:07, and Ehilegbu bookended that trey with a layup and two from the line to finish off the Bobcats.
Final: Randolph WildCats 75, Frostburg State Bobcats 64 (OT)
Photos: Frostburg State @ Randolph
Player of the Game: Mike Ehilegbu (16 points, 11 rebounds, 4 steals)
Mileage Tracker: 275 miles
Next Stop: ACAC Fitness and Wellness Center South Region Classic, November 23 (Hampden-Sydney, VA)