ODACcess: Madness and Joy (NCAA Tournament First Round, Ashland, VA)

ASHLAND, Va. – Going into Selection Monday, it wasn’t at all clear that we’d be able to attend any NCAA Tournament action. After Randolph-Macon’s early exit from the ODAC tournament, they’d taken a dent to their otherwise impressive resume, and while an at-large bid was almost guaranteed, hosting duties were no certainty. Meanwhile, Virginia Wesleyan had impressed on their run to the ODAC title, but geographic necessities were always working against them.

So of course it would turn out that both schools would be picked to host, and we would be faced with a difficult choice between the two. Ultimately, the decision for us, like for the NCAA selection committee, came down to one of geography. So it was off to Ashland, a couple hours closer to our base camp, for what might be our last ODACcess game of the season.

Of course, before any of that, of course, there was another game to watch. The NCAA tournament’s system of pods often leads to undercards which, while often hotly contested, are played in front of empty stands. For this game, that was certainly not the case.

The University of Mary Washington has an impressive sports pedigree. Since the conference was founded in 1990, they have won more Capital Athletic Conference championships in all sports than any other member school. Their successes over the years, however, have not extended to men’s basketball. Over the past 22 years, the Eagles had won the CAC title only once, and was followed by a quick exit from the NCAA tournament.

But this season was shaping up to be different. Senior guard Bradley Riester was coming off a two 2nd Team All-CAC selections, and the Eagles had made the CAC championship game the previous year. With the addition of perennial contender Christopher Newport to the conference, the opportunity was there for more success than Fredericksburg had seen in a while.

Early in the season, loyal readers may remember, we travelled to Hamden-Sydney to attend their early season tournament. In addition to the hosts, another ODAC school, Shenandoah, would be in attendance. Those were our attractions to Farmville that weekend, but we also got a chance to watch the UMW Eagles play, in an early road test. We only made it to the second day of competition, and were forced to watch a stream of their buzzer-beater loss to the Tigers. But we saw their dominating 77-69 win over Shenandoah. They were unable to contain Avery Green (who we named player of the game), but their offense clicked on all cylinders, with upperclassmen Bradley Riester, Dylan Farinet and Taylor Johnson leading the way.

After that, Mary Washington and ODACcess went our separate ways. In the meantime, the Eagles put up one of their best seasons under 18-year coach Ron Wood, going 12-4 in conference (including a sweep of unanimous conference favorites St. Mary’s) and earning the #2 seed in the CAC tournament. After regular-season champ Wesley fell in the semis, the Eagles hosted the CAC title game, in which they dismissed Christopher Newport, securing their second NCAA berth.
Coach Wood had his sights set on hosting first-round games, but the NCAA decided against that, giving them the next best thing: a game in Ashland, only 42 miles down I-95, and in the backyard of many of the Eagles’ players. No to mention that Coach Wood would be returning to his alma mater, where he led the Jackets to three NCAA berths in his four years.

The Springfield Pride were not so lucky. After losing the NEWMAC title game to MIT, they were left on the bubble. They waited through 18 of the 20 at large selections before their name was called on the NCAA selection show. The NCAA prefers not to send schools more than 500 miles for their first round games, to keep costs down. Still, the trip from central Massachusetts to central Virginia entailed a 459-mile, 9-hour bus ride. The trip was so long, in fact, that their initial bus driver was forced to stop, as he had exceeded his daily driving limit, and the team switched buses and kept going. Considering the distance, the atmosphere in Crenshaw Gymnasium seemed more like an Eagles’ home game than a neutral court contest.

Eastern Mennonite transfer Dajon Daniel and Riester got the Eagles out to an early 7-0 lead, and never looked back. While the Pride narrowed the gap early, a 21-7 run for UMW, powered by Riester’s stellar three-point shooting and a tenacious, ball-hawking defense, blew it wide open early. Riester was perfect from beyond the arc. Combined with 12 forced turnovers and a number of athletic moves by Daniel, who suffered with flu-like symptoms the entire game, the Pride were overwhelmed in the first half, and they went to the break down 37-28.

Out of the break, the Pride was more protective of the ball, creating more opportunities and cutting the lead to 5, thanks to poorer shooting by the Eagles. That, however, would be as close as they got. Asa Scott, a freshman guard from nearby Richmond, took some minutes for Daniel, who picked up his third and fourth fouls in the early minutes of the half. According to Coach Wood, “The difference in tonight’s game is that we had a freshman step up. He’s been ready to step up, and we’ve brought him along, but he stepped up big minutes.” Late in the half, facing a possible Springfield comeback, Scott hit back-to-back threes to open up a double digit lead. The Eagles played methodically on offense all night, and up 14 with 3:35 left, it was all but over for the Pride.

After the game, Coach Wood was obviously overjoyed with his team, and being able to get his first win as a coach on the floor of his alma mater: “We’ve done something tonight that Mary Washington has never done before, and that makes me proud.” He waxed nostalgic briefly, “This group, [former Randolph-Macon] Coach Nunnally would be proud of, and I’m as proud as I can be, because for the first time I’m able to come to Crenshaw Gymansium, and I’m not embarrassed to leave Crenshaw Gymnasium.”

It was, then, easy to root for a narrative in the second game: for Macon to advance and play against their former star turned rival coach. Even Coach Wood suggested he was hoping for such a matchup, only the second of his tenure. Of course, the DeSales Bulldogs cared only about their own narrative: trying to win a national title.

Prior to this year, DeSales had made three appearances in the Tournament (once in their former incarnation as Allentown College). Their most recent appearance, in 2010, saw them win a pair of neutral site games, and advance to the Sweet Sixteen. There, they ran into a school from Ashland called Randolph-Macon, which was in the midst of its own impressive run. Macon defeated the upstart Bulldogs, on route to their first and so far only Division III Final Four. DeSales had not met Macon since, and after being drawn against them, Coach Scott Coval had to have thought back on that tough loss.

DeSales had once again put together an impressive season in the Middle Atlantic Freedom Conference, earning both the conference’s regular season and tournament titles, and rolling into the NCAA tournament with momentum from a nail-biting overtime win against Misericordia. Macon, on the other hand, had put together a dominant conference season, locking up the regular season title with a win over Hampden-Sydney on their home court. But the ODAC tournament in Salem saw them scuffle against that same Sydney team, leading to an early exit for the favored Jackets.

The NCAA tournament provides an opportunity for teams to put all that behind them, but it comes with a demand of perfection. When we saw Macon play H-SC, they were operating at perfection, and Chris Hamilton embodied that: a sharpshooting role-player exploding for 27 points on a perfect shooting night. But the foundation for the Jackets was always with its big men: Joe Hassell, Akeem Holmes, and most of all, Andre Simon, who before the end of January had joined Macon’s 1,000-point club. During the regular season, these players made plays inside on offense and defense. In their loss to H-SC, they had no answers for Khobi Williamson in the second half, and that led to their early exit.

So it made sense for DeSales to focus on taking away those opportunities. For the first half, much of R-MC’s offense came off the bench. Jamie Wilson took over Hamilton’s sharpshooters role, hitting two threes in the first. But the starters, including Hassell and Simon, accounted for only 6 points, effectively contained by the Bulldog’s defense. By virtue of 6 first half turnovers, and impressive shooting early, the Jackets opened up a 27-18 lead on a 9-2 run, capped by a pair of rare Hamilton layups. It seemed like the game might soon get out of hand, so DeSales called timeout.

Out of the break, the defenses for both teams held solid, and eventually DeSales managed to convert from the line for the first time in the game. DeSales started 7-0 run of their own going into the break, leaving the Bulldogs within range, down only 27-25.

It was hard to tell what to make of the game coming out of the break. The referees’ whistles seemed to come in quicker, the crowd grew a little more anxious than they had been. For the first six minutes, the squads traded buckets and fouls. With 14:12 left on the clock, Simon went to the line to shoot two, and missed them both. DeSales’ All-Conference guard Mike Coleman grabbed the rebound, ran the floor, and scored on the lay up to tie the game for the first time since it was 4-4, with 16:18 on the clock in the first.

And Coleman was by no means done. From that point on, he began an impressive run of dominance from the floor and free throw line, assisted by Kyle Hash, to extend the Bulldogs’ lead. The Jackets’ shooting, especially from beyond the arc, continued to suffer, while on defense they seemed unable to contain Coleman and Hash. A pair of threes from Hash and Paul Pammer extended the DeSales lead to 8 with under five minutes to play, and Coach Nathan Davis was forced to call time.

As play resumed, the Jackets drew more contact, but left points at the line, keeping some pressure off of DeSales. Coleman extended the lead back to five from the line, and and after a couple empty trips each way, there was only a minute left, and a 60-55 Bulldogs lead. Trent Walker pulled down the rebound from an errant Hash three, and was fouled driving into the paint. His ensuing free throws cut the lead to 3, and put the pressure on DeSales to put the game on ice.

The Macon defense pressured the ball handlers persistently, almost forcing a turnover after trapping Cody Deal along the sideline. Eventually, hounded by defenders, Mike Coleman through up a desperate three from 25+ feet, which missed. The Jackets corralled the rebound and called timeout to map out a play with only 11.9 ticks on the clock, still down three.

Coach Davis called upon a play he’d been running since his tenure as a Bucknell assistant, feeding the ball to Jamie Wilson. He drew the defender slightly off of Chris Hamilton, and passed the ball over to him on the right wing. With the clock winding down, Hamilton put up a hurried, contested, and off-balance shot to the tie the game, and it found the bottom of the net. Crenshaw roared with excitement, the mascot ran all over the place, and any students who had been sitting down got to their feet. A last second Coleman shot to win clanged off the rim, and the clock hit zero.

Once again, it was easy to fall into the narrative trap: the home team putting together an incredible last minute comeback, using that energy to dominate the extra period. The DeSales Bulldogs were too well coached to allow Hamilton’s incredible shot to demoralize his squad. They came back from the brief intermission playing the same intense defense and crashing the boards. Once again, Coleman led the way, sinking two huge jumpers halfway through to open up a 69-62 lead. The Jackets were unable to convert the Hamilton three into a boost for their shooters. Eventually forced to foul, the Coleman was clutch down the stretch from the line, putting the game away. The Jackets fans who had been so delirious just minutes before began to trickle out, as the small DeSales crowd sang them out.

The magic and the curse of the NCAA tournament is that anything can happen. On the one hand, we get crazy upsets and wonderful stories. On the other, one off night for a talented team, as the 2013-14 Randolph-Macon Yellow Jackets undoubtedly were, and the journey is over. For all their dominance over their ODAC opposition, it translated into only one postseason game in a packed Crenshaw. Of course, their loss is another’s gain. DeSales gets revenge for their loss in 2010. Mary Washington makes program history. And you can be sure that, even with the hosts eliminated, Crenshaw will not be empty tonight.

Far to the east, the Virginia Wesleyan Marlins did take care of business in their first round game, as we saw them take care of business last weekend in Salem. They alone carry the ODAC banner in the tournament, as they take on Wesley. We’re not ashamed to say we’ll be rooting for the Marlins: you can’t follow a conference for a year like we have, and not develop a bond with the teams and players you watch. But know that no matter the result, the tournament will never fail to produce as much excitement, joy and sorrow as any sporting event out there. The road to Salem is not easy, but damn is it fun.

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