BALTIMORE – With Elon this weekend, you saw a mix of why they had to play on the first night of the CAA Tournament and some hope. It all went together, but didn’t translate into a big upset on Saturday to move on, as William & Mary took over the game early and scored a convincing 72-59 quarterfinal win.
The issues were clear. The Phoenix were not good defensively, and this was a bad time for that to be the case as they were up against a very good and disciplined offensive team. They had offensive issues, too, but it started on defense, particularly with the way William & Mary took the lead for good – primarily on three-pointers as they hit three in an 11-0 run to take the lead for good.
The hope comes from the likes of Elijah Bryant, the newly-minted CAA Rookie of the Year, as well as classmate Dmitri Thompson and backcourt mate Tanner Samson, the latter of whom had his moments on Saturday in between foul trouble. There’s also the way this team had to persevere through adversity all season.
“It’s a disappointing loss for us because it ends the season,” said head coach Matt Metheny. “But as every second passes, I think less and less about the disappointment of the end of the season and more and more about how proud I am of the way our guys have fought all year, and specifically how we got off the mat about three weeks ago.”
Transitioning to a new conference was going to be challenging enough, made more challenging by the fact that they lost their top three scorers and rebounders from last season. Add two big injuries – a season-ending knee injury to second-leading scorer Luke Eddy in December and a back injury to Ryan Winters that shelved him from January to the rest of the season – and you can understand why this was a tough year. The Phoenix lost seven in a row just after Winters went down. That was when they were on the mat, almost down for the count.
Losing players to injury or for other reasons does a lot to a team. It’s not just that they’re short a player or two; it often affects other guys and not just because they have to do more to compensate. It often means players are pressed into roles that are new to them, and usually means they can’t get ready for that at a pace. It often means players end up out of position. It sometimes, as in Elon’s case, means playing differently. All that time spent implementing offensive and defensive schemes isn’t wasted, but doesn’t get utilized as much because the personnel is drastically different.
“We really had to reinvent the team,” Metheny said. “We went small. It was one thing just to go small, but another thing to try to run different plays and get guys in the right spots, and it took some time.”
Through it all, though, the character of this team made things manageable, and also was a big part of how they won four in a row before Saturday. Included in that was an overtime win just hours earlier over Towson, the last sign that this team had at last made it to life without Eddy and Winters. They got there largely from their chemistry. Austin Hamilton, an outgoing senior, was a big part of that, along with classmates Winters (even while injured but around the team) and Kevin Blake. Right around the time the team snapped its losing streak, Hamilton changed what the team said in its huddle to “family.”
It’s all reflective of the team as a whole. Metheny said his kids always rave about how the team treats them, as they get to be around the team often. They had a strong bond already, and adversity didn’t break it.
“It is a family. It’s something that’s real,” Metheny reflected. “There’s a lot of love, and when you love as deeply as we love, it hurts when you have a tough day like this. But family sees you through that.”
Bryant is the centerpiece going forward. He did all he could, carrying this team at times, and early on Saturday he tried to as well. He scored, he was third on the team in rebounding, he was second in assists, but also led in turnovers. Even the top newcomer has room to grow, and there’s reason to believe he will. Thompson showed promise and will get better with more work and an expanded role.
Elon’s first season in the CAA was a real test. They bent at times, but didn’t break. They had struggles, but they got better and finished well before bowing out to a better team. They had concerns, but they have hope going forward. Most of all, they have each other, and if the younger guys take along the culture that the leaders this year set up, they will endure into next season.