CAA Championship: Delaware Captures First Men’s CAA Hoops Title on Stunning Late Rally

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Blue Hens Score Final Seven Points to Deny William & Mary Its First NCAA Tourney Trip

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BALTIMORE — Eighty seconds. That’s all that separated the William & Mary Tribe from its first NCAA Tournament berth.

But showing the same resilience they demonstrated at many other times this season, the Delaware Blue Hens weren’t ready to quit until they added their first Colonial Athletic Association tournament championship to their initial CAA regular season title they captured this year.

Before that, William & Mary’s best player, junior guard Marcus Thornton (the league’s fifth-leading scorer) and CAA Rookie of the Year, Omar Prewitt (14 points off the bench), seemed to have secured the Tribe’s first CAA crown of any kind, when a Thornton jumper followed by a Prewitt 3-pointer gave third-seeded William & Mary (20-12, 12-7 CAA) an apparently safe 74-68 lead with 1:20 left at the Baltimore Arena on Monday night.

Thornton (team-best 22 points), an Upper Marlboro, Maryland native who was named to the All-tournament team, seemed poised to earn the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player at that point.

Ten seconds later, senior guard Devon Saddler (16 points, five assists) — appropriately from Aberdeen, Maryland, and even more fitting, the Blue Hens’ all-time leading scorer — sank two free throws to start a game-ending 7-0 run that lifted top-seeded Delaware (25-9, 17-2 CAA) to a thrilling 75-74 victory and the right to become the first team from the America East to represent the CAA in the NCAA tournament later this month.

However, it’s what Saddler later did in the Blue Hens’ huddle which ultimately led to Delaware’s championship.

This season’s first-time CAA Coach of the Year, Monte’ Ross, wanted to draw up a play for Saddler, who instead, had another idea with the Blue Hens down a point on their last possession — get the ball to senior transfer forward (from St. Joseph’s) Carl Baptiste, who didn’t disappoint.

Baptiste caught the ball on the left blocks and scored on a lay-in after he turned, with Thornton trying to draw a charge after only minimal contact. That basket gave Baptiste a career-high 24 points (on 9-of-11 shooting, plus 6-of-7 at the free throw line) and it held up as the game-winning bucket with 12.8 seconds left.

“Carl had it going all game,” Saddler said. “I knew once he got it down, got it into the post, they couldn’t stop him down low. I’m not a selfish player, so I was like, ‘Carl’s got it going, Coach. Why don’t we just run a play for him and get the ball inside?’

At that moment, failure wasn’t an option, according to Baptiste.

“The whole team, we have so much trust in each other,” he said. “As soon as they said I was getting the ball, there was no way I wasn’t going to let them down.”

Although William & Mary was hoping that the third time this against Delaware this season would be the charm in Charm City, the Tribe ended up losing to the Blue Hens for a seventh straight time overall.

In the teams’ previous meetings this year, Delaware won at home, 76-71, and then at William & Mary, 89-72, behind Baptiste’s 23 points (his prior career high).

Following Baptiste’s game-winner, Thornton had one last chance to reverse William & Mary’s elusive NCAA fate in favor of the Tribe, but his jumper from just inside the 3-point line clanged off the back of the rim with 1.1 seconds remaining, leaving William & Mary as one of just five original Division I teams — along with Army, St. Francis (NY), Northwestern and The Citadel — and one of just two such schools counting men’s and women’s programs, to never reach the NCAA tournament.

Delaware, meanwhile, will make its first trip to the Big Dance in 15 years, after qualifying for March’s main event via America East tournament titles in 1992, ’93, ’98 and ’99.

Although William & Mary started hot from the floor, where it finished the game shooting 52.5 percent (31-for-59), the Tribe cost itself dearly at the free throw line, first by misfiring, and then due to a sheer lack of opportunities. William & Mary made just three of 10 foul shots in the first half and missed its only attempt in the second stanza.

Conversely, Delaware made 15 of 18 (83.3 percent) free throws, including 10 of 11 in the second half.

After shooting 60 percent in the second half of its almost-as-electrifying 75-71 semifinal win over second-seeded Towson, the Tribe made seven of its first nine shots and built an 18-10 lead, with Thornton accounting for half of William & Mary’s points by then.

Yet after Delaware (which got all of its scoring from its starters) missed five of six early attempts from 3-point range, the Blue Hens began to overpower the Tribe in the paint, as Baptiste (who scored 16 points and made all  seven of his first-half shots), was 6-for-6 while his teammates were a combined 6-for-24 — just before Saddler scored on a terrific baseline drive and reverse layup to give the top seed a 33-30 lead.

Earlier, seven straight points by Delaware cut William & Mary’s lead to 18-17, and over the final 13:48 of the opening half, the Blue Hens outscored the Tribe, 29-15, to take a 39-33 halftime edge.

Junior guard Kyle Anderson (nine points), after missing six of his first seven shots (all from 3-point range, and all in the first half), made his next two shots (each 3s) to help extend Delaware’s advantage to a game-high gap of 47-35.

Remarkably, though, the Tribe which led, 59-58, with 7:14 left against Towson a day earlier, trailed by the same score, with the same time remaining, after a Thornton 3-pointer capped a 23-12 spurt.

Davon Usher, a South Baltimore native and the CAA’s third-leading scorer, had a rare night struggling with his shot. He scored just eight points and missed his first seven shots, while going just 2-for-10. But he still grabbed a game-high 10 rebounds, matched Saddler with a game-best five assists and when it counted most, hit a couple of crucial 3-pointers.

The first of those came 26 seconds after a Thornton jumper, to put the Blue Hens up, 64-60. The next came nearly three minutes later — and 11 seconds after a Thornton trey ended a 9-1 run that moved the Tribe ahead, 69-65 — as Usher brought Delaware to within 69-68, with 3:25 remaining.

Another Thornton jumper, with 2:08 left, gave William & Mary a 71-68 lead.

Then, Prewitt, who failed to score on three first-half shots, but who showed nerves of steel for a freshman on a big stage — by going 6-for-8 in the second half, including a coast-to-coast drive that he finished with a crowd-pleasing dunk — drained a left-corner 3-pointer, before running back on defense with his tongue hanging out under a scoreboard that read 74-68, Tribe.

A short while later, that feeling quickly changed when Prewitt missed the front end of a one-and-one with 58.6 seconds left.

About seven seconds after that, junior guard Jarvis Threatt (18 points, seven rebounds, four assists), the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, drove into the lane, got hit and scored on a nice scoop layup off the glass. The Richmond, Virginia native (playing in the CAA tournament’s first location apart from his hometown, which hosted the event for the previous 24 years) made the ensuing free throw to get Delaware within 74-73.

“I wish I could give it to the whole team,” Threatt said of his award. “To be the Most Outstanding Player is a blessing, with the talent we have on this team. I couldn’t be more proud for the seniors that we have — Davon, Carl, Devon and (seldom-used) Tommy Williams.”

A missed jumper by Thornton was rebounded by Usher and the Blue Hens called time out with 25 seconds left, allowing Saddler to make his unselfish decision in letting Baptiste become the hero.

Ross admitted, “When I called the time out with 25 seconds left, [I thought], ‘Okay, what play are we going to run for Devon Saddler?’ And the first thing he said was, ‘Get the ball inside to Bap.’ So we just came up with what we think is our most efficient play to get it to him. It was crowded in there when we got it to him, but powered and bulled his way to the basket and got us the victory. I can’t say enough about Devon making that suggestion… championship on the line, for him to have the faith that he has in Carl Baptiste.”

On the final possession, Thornton had a good look from the right wing, but despite making eight of his previous 14 field goal attempts in the game, including four of six from 3-point range to that point, he was just a little long on the last shot.

“We felt like we should have won the game,” Thornton said dejectedly. “’We were in position to do it, so to lose is disappointing.”

Head coach Tony Shaver said, “Marcus was sensational. I really felt the last shot was [going to be] good, but it hit the back of the rim… he’s a great player, [has] had a great year.”

On Thornton’s last shot, Baptiste said. “We’d rather play defense for the last play than have the ball for the last play… so I had no doubt that we’d get that stop.”

That’s somewhat of a surprising statement for a team that was built on a potent offense, and which led the CAA in scoring this season — although at times, much of the Blue Hens’ scoring is initiated by what Delaware does on defense, especially when it forces turnovers and start running.

An instant after Thornton’s final shot caromed off the rim and time ran out, many of the 5,414 boisterous fans in attendance (which sounded more like a capacity crowd in a building that holds 11,800 for basketball), rushed the court to celebrate with the Blue Hens.

“I didn’t know whether to cry or to smile,” Saddler said. “I was kind of standing there and the crowd attacked me. I was just laying there, enjoying it.”

Adding to that, Baptiste said, “This was a dream come true. I was waiting for this for five years.“

On the other side, Shaver captured William & Mary’s frustration while defending his team for producing a gallant effort in defeat.

“It can’t be more heartbreaking for a lot of people,” he said. “A lot of people involved in this thing and have been involved in it for a long time. At some point, I think we’ve got to stop measuring success by the NCAA [tournament]. Quite honestly, if we wanted to move to a different league that had like schools, that had the same type of academic limitations we have, we’d win some championships. But we choose to challenge ourselves, and I’m not going to let [getting to the] NCAA [tournament] or not define this basketball team.”

Earlier, Ross had offered some consoling words for Shaver and the Tribe, while taking the opportunity to congratulate his own team.

“I’d like to say a really, really heartfelt congratulations to Tony Shaver and William & Mary,” Ross said. “Those guys were just unbelievable tonight. There’s not a classier man in this league than Tony Shaver. I never fraternize with [opposing] coaches before the game, but he and I talked before the game. That’s how much respect I have for him. So I feel for those guys… but we’ve had a heck of a year and to cap it off [in the CAA] like this, is really special.”

Ross also added of the late comeback, “I can’t say enough about this group, the way we stick with it… these guys understand that it’s not over until it’s over. And they just kept playing. I couldn’t be prouder of these guys for their effort, from their resiliency. They just never give up.”

Throughout the tournament, Ross echoed the earlier sentiments of his players about trust in one another.

“This thing is all promises,” he said. “I promised Devon when I recruited him, I promised Jarvis, I promised Bap when he transferred in that we were going to get to this point, and their faith in me makes me have a lot of faith in them now.”               

So how much will that trust continue to help the Blue Hens as they prepare for the NCAA tournament?

Possibly a good amount, according to Shaver, who believes that surviving a tough CAA tournament could aid Delaware, though he did qualify that statement with a few potential obstacles for the Blue Hens to overcome.

“This was a high level game, a high level tournament and I think Delaware will move on and represent the league well,” he said. “They’re one of the most explosive offensive teams I’ve seen in a long time, in our league. The challenge for them will be to rebound and defend inside against bigger teams. They have [forced turnovers] all year. The question will be against bigger stronger teams, ‘Can they do that?’ I don’t know.”

Nor does anyone else.

One thing for sure is, as many like Shaver and William & Mary found out, if Delaware isn’t down by that much in the NCAA tournament, the Blue Hens shouldn’t be counted out too soon.

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