FREDERICKSBURG, Va. – While ODACcess was in Ashland last week, taking in the Yellow Jackets first round loss to DeSales, the ODAC champion Virginia Wesleyan Marlins were getting their tournament underway at home. They dominated their Friday matchup with surprise Centennial champ Johns Hopkins, and outlasted nationally-ranked Wesley the following night, despite an 0-for-7 performance from Rookie of the Year Khory Moore.
As we noted last time, Mary Washington dismissed Springfield in the first round, earning their first ever tournament win. In their second game, which, like their first, was played on a neutral court in theory, but was a home game in reality, they thoroughly trounced DeSales, holding them to 15 first half points. If you watched the Eagles in that first weekend of play, or at all during the course of the season, you knew that they were built around their long range shooters. Every one of their starters plays like a guard, from true guards like Bradley Riester to stretch players like Dylan Farinet. After the first weekend of NCAA play, Mary Washington ranked fifth in the nation in three-point attempts, and fourth in made threes. Right behind them were the Marlins, scheduled to meet in the round of sixteen. Thanks to fortuitous geography, and the early round loss of New York’s Purchase College, Mary Washington found itself poised for another first: an NCAA tournament home game, in their sparkling new gym, the Anderson Center.
These two teams have something of a history. Senior Dylan Farinet spent his freshman year at Virginia Wesleyan, where he spent almost all of the year on the bench. He then transferred to Mary Washington, where he’s blossomed into a primary contributor to Ron Wood’s program. Dajon Daniel, another UMW starter, played for three years at Eastern Mennonite, playing against Virginia Wesleyan five times in those seasons. With this experience with Wesleyan, Coach Wood scheduled a home game with the Marlins for mid-December.
Both squads entered the game with only one tough loss on the season: Mary Washington to Hampden-Sydney at the buzzer, and VWC to regional rival Christopher Newport in overtime. Farinet and Riester led the way for UMW in the first half, opening up a 7 point lead over Wesleyan by halftime. The second half, as it has been all season, was the DJ Woodmore’s time to shine, as he put up 21 points to lead the Marlins as they tied the game. In the second overtime, Wesleyan’s threes failed to fall, and the Eagles pulled out a 95-87 win.
Unlike last week, we missed the undercard, a high-scoring affair between Williams and Albertus Magnus, which the Ephs won 110-92. By the time we arrived, only standing room only tickets were available, and the line for them stretched 30 feet out of the door. Inside, the arena was packed, the pep band in full force, and the student sections, both behind and across from the UMW bench, were boisterous.
Coach Wood had taken some lessons away from the closely fought contest, first among them that DJ Woodmore was always a threat, and had to be the focus of any defensive game plan against the Marlins. The Eagles committed Daniels to guarding Woodmore from the get go, hoping to contain his explosiveness from all areas of the court. Of course, the Marlins have other weapons, which Coach Macedo was sure to exploit. Specifically, Khory Moore, coming off of his terrible shooting night against Wesley, exploded in the first half for 20 points, including 4 from downtown.
Unfortunately, every other VWC scorer was effectively shut down by a pesky Eagles defense. They forced 11 first half turnovers, and limited the Marlins’ second chance opportunities. On offense, Bradley Riester was continuing his dominance from long range, scoring on four of his own attempts for 17 points. His scoring was supplemented by Daniel, who contributed 11 of his own. A little run by the Marlins closed the gap going towards the half, but they still went in to the locker room down 11. It was still within range for VWC, but they needed to make some defensive adjustments in order to stay in it.
Coach Macedo knows his team, and he knows what his team needs to do differently. Coming out of the break, the Marlins changed their defensive mindset, taking a page out of Mary Washington’s book. Khory Moore was given one defensive assignment: stopping Bradley Riester. By eliminating defensive switches, the Marlins cut down on Riester’s open looks, and allowed them to turn the tide. Soon, after a 14-3 Marlins run, the game was tied for the first time since the first 9 minutes of the game.
Daniel was still containing Woodmore, but Colby Heard had taken a bigger role in the paint. His height advantage allowed him to dominate the shorter Eagles lineup, frequently scoring on dunks, layups, and free throws. The Marlins reemphasized ball security, while simultaneously using their quick hands to disrupt Eagles passing. Even without a tremendous showing from Woodmore, the Marlins had opened up a five point lead by the 8:50 mark. Soon thereafter, Coach Wood called time to regroup.
Out of the break, the Eagles clamped down in the paint to limit Heard’s chances. The Marlins shifted back to perimeter shooting, but were unable to capitalize on their shots. The Wesleyan defense began to play more sloppily, allowing the Eagles to create and convert free throw opportunities. UMW closed the gap, and it remained close going into the final minutes.
With two minutes left, the game remained tied at 66. Taylor Johnson broke the tie for UMW with a layup, but Woodmore responded with two of his own from the line. On the ensuing possession, Dom Morra drove to the basket for the layup, and earned the and-one. He missed the free throw, leaving it a two point game, but VWC could not get the tying bucket. Aaron Clark elected to foul Morra in the backcourt, and send him to the line with 32 seconds on the clock. With a chance to extend to a two-possession game, Morra went only 1-for-2.
The Marlins’ plan for the possession was clear: get the ball to Woodmore and allow him to work his magic. UMW’s defense hounded the ball handlers as they came up the court, but Aaron Clark and Khory Moore managed to free up Woodmore for an open shot from his favorite spot off the left wing. As the ball left his hands, Woodmore said, he thought it was going in. Anyone who had seen Virginia Wesleyan play would think the same thing. But the ball fell short and to the left, missing the rim entirely, and bouncing out of bounds as the Anderson Center thundered.
At that point, it was all but over. A few free throws sealed it for the Eagles. Woodmore, along with fellow seniors Clark, Heard, and Trent Batson, were clearly emotional as they left the court. Woodmore, after the game, said that the emotions hadn’t yet hit him, but he clearly held himself to blame for his missed game-tying shot. His awards and accomplishments (ODAC Rookie of the Year, three First-Team All-ODAC selections, including two Player of the Year honors, and a pair of conference titles) were nothing compared to his desire for a champion. But he was emphatic that this was not the end for him. He repeated words we’d heard from his coach months before: “Once a Marlin, always a Marlin.”
The story out of tournament games is always the winner, especially when it’s a team who is doing all of this for the first time like Mary Washington is. UMW may have been the host, and may have been nationally ranked, but no one would call them a favorite. Everyone loves an underdog story. Coach Wood was his bubbly self after the game, explicitly invoking the “Cinderella” imagery that is everywhere this time of year. And they’re right to, because it gets no easier from here, with one of the strongest programs in Division III awaiting them in the next round.
But for us, the story has to be this Marlins team. A team that had tests throughout the season, and overcame them. They have a bond with their coach, their school, their fans, and their community that any program would like to emulate. They have the respect of their competitors. It’s disappointing that a career like D.J. Woodmore’s, or any of his fellow seniors’, end in a game like this. But despite Woodmore’s statement to the contrary, his team’s accomplishments are important. This is why we love sports, even when our teams don’t succeed. Each victory, each milestone, each story matters to the people who witness them.
With Virginia Wesleyan’s elimination, the ODACcess Project as originally envisioned comes to an end. This is bittersweet, of course. We accomplished what we set out to do: visit schools, meet people, watch basketball, and tell stories. Through that, we grew connected with the ODAC players and schools we watched and covered. We don’t know exactly what’s in store for the Project, but we know it’s not exactly over.
By the time this goes up, the Final Four will be set, and travel plans to Salem arranged. More stories are there for the telling, and we’ll be there to tell them. It may not be “ODACcess” per se, but our love of basketball is not tied to a specific conference. ODACcess is about basketball, about the teams, the schools, the players and the fans, and those things are universal. And we’d be remiss if we didn’t follow those things wherever they took us, especially to this level’s biggest stage. ODACcess is dead, but long live ODACcess.
See you in Salem.
- Final: Mary Washington 74, Virginia Wesleyan 70
- Players of the Game: Bradley Riester (UMW) (23 points, 7 rebounds, 2 steals) and Khory Moore (30 points on 17 shots, 6-11 on threes)
- Mileage Tracker: 3904 miles
- Next Stop: NCAA Division III Men’s Basketball Final Four, March 21-22, Salem, VA