LYNCHBURG, Va. — Forget Christmas. This is the most wonderful time of the year–conference tournament time!
Conference tournaments are great because everything resets. Not completely, of course–the regular season matters, as it sets seeding for the tournament, gives some teams byes, and in some conferences (though not the ODAC), a few teams at the bottom of the standings see their seasons end before the tourney begins. Those caveats aside, the beauty of conference tournaments is that any team, no matter how poorly they’ve played or how soundly they’ve been defeated in the regular season, can make a run, win a few games, and obtain the ultimate prize: a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
In the ODAC, the top four teams receive byes into the quarterfinals, while teams ranked fifth through twelfth duke it out at campus sites in the first round. Making the quarters in the ODAC is particularly exciting, as it is the only Division III conference to have its tournament at a neutral site–and not just any neutral site, but the Salem Civic Center, home of the NCAA Final Four in just over a month. It was against that backdrop that ODACcess returned to the first ODAC gym we visited this year, the RAD Center at Randolph College, for a first round game between the sixth-seeded hometown WildCats and the #11 Generals of Washington and Lee.
This one should not have been close. Randolph had won 10 of its 11 matchups against W&L all-time, including both this year. In their second regular-season matchup, just six days prior to this game, the WildCats sunk a school-record 17 three-pointers en route to an 80-57 walloping of the Generals. However, as the nice Randolph fans we met at the Texas Inn (aside: which is fantastic, try the Cheesy Western) after the game so astutely noted, it’s simply very difficult to beat a team three times in one season. In particular, Washington and Lee came prepared to guard the perimeter, and it paid off in the first half.
This is usually the part where we’d either discuss the first half (to give the reader a sense of the early action) or describe the arena and its environs (to give the reader a sense of the atmosphere). But the latter description seems redundant, as we’ve done that before. As for describing the action, well, let’s just say it’s not worth your time. Neither team played poorly in the half–to the contrary, both teams played solid defense, and their respective offenses did an admirable job poking small holes in those defenses to get the ball into the paint or find the occasional open shooter beyond the arc–but Lady Luck smiled on neither side early in the night. In stark contrast to the 41 first-half points the WildCats posted in their most recent matchup with the Generals, the teams combined to shoot just 32% (19-for-59) in the opening frame, and RC limped to a 25-23 edge at the break.
But lest you think this game was a dud, the action really picked up early in the second. Evan Horn opened the frame with a layup, sparking an 11-6 run giving Randolph its largest lead of the night at seven, 36-29. Not content to let this one get away, W&L responded with 13 of the next 16 points to tie the game for the first time in a long time, and Andy Kleinlein capped off the spurt with a triple to give the Generals a 42-39 advantage with under 12 minutes to go. Kleinlein was a breath of fresh air off the bench for Washington and Lee, knocking down 4-of-5 three-point attempts on the night. Two of those treys came in the ensuing six minutes, as he and teammate Andrew Franz combined for 12 of the Generals’ 14 points during that period–important points indeed, as Randolph’s Mike Ehilegbu and Eddie Jason were mounting a strong charge at the time.
The result of all this was a tight contest to the wire. When yeoman-like big Jim Etling kissed a layup off the glass and through the hoop with 3:17 left, the scoreboard read 58-58. Neither team recorded a point in the next 1:30, and when Horn drained two free-throws at the 1:53 mark, giving Randolph the lead once more, the crowd hooted and hollered as though a win was eminent. But Kleinlein and Etling had other ideas.
Etling was just 1-for-6 on three-point attempts at that point, but like any good stretch 4–I can’t be the only one reminded of Spencer Hawes when watching his game–he saved his long-range best for last. Catching a swift pass from Kleinlein on the wing, Etling drilled his second trey of the evening, putting the Generals in front 61-60. Not to be outdone, Kleinlein pushed the advantage to four, 64-60, with his final triple of the game at the 0:31 mark. Corey Brown pulled the Cats within two with 8 ticks on the clock, but Etling was as cool as ice from the line thereafter, sinking both freebies to seal the upset win for Washington and Lee. The Generals advance to Salem, where third-seeded Guilford awaits in Friday’s quarterfinals.
As for the WildCats, despite Coach Clay Nunley’s consoling words after the game, this defeat must be disappointing. They clearly had the talent to beat–or crush, as it were–the Generals on any given night. In that context, failing to get past the first round has to hurt.
But Randolph also has plenty to build on next year. Seniors Ehilegbu and Dylan Shiflett graduate in a few months, but Horn and Jason and the rest of the team’s core returns. Plus, guard Zach Desgain–a serious threat on both ends of the floor who has been absent from the Cats for most of the season with an ankle injury–should be back on the court by November. Sure, the team made the NCAA Tournament last year, but that was on the back of ODAC Player of the Year and Jostens Trophy winner Colton Hunt, who graduated after the 2012-13 campaign. With Hunt and Desgain missing, 15 conference wins and a six seed in the tourney isn’t all that bad.
- Final: #11 Washington and Lee Generals 66, #7 Randolph WildCats 62
- Player of the Game: Andy Kleinlein (W&L) (14 points on 5-of-6 shooting, 4-of-5 on 3PA)
- Relive the game from our seats: check out our photos on Flikr and our @ODACcess livestream on Storify
- Mileage Tracker: 2944 miles
- Next Stop: ODAC Tournament Quarterfinals, Salem Civic Center (Salem, Va.), February 28