March is the best month of the year for a reason. College basketball has the conference tournaments and the grand-daddy of them all, the NCAA Tournament. The NIT, CBI and CIT add to it. While the last four are the big ones, especially the NCAA, the conference tournaments provide plenty of lasting memories as well. There, teams play with everything on the line, especially in conferences that will only send their champion to the NCAA Tournament.
Enter this weekend. We had the Ohio Valley Conference giving us another memorable championship game on Saturday night. Then on Sunday, a day where three automatic bids were handed out, it was a semifinal game in Baltimore that provided us with an instant classic.
In the first CAA semifinal, Hofstra took on top seed William & Mary. Although they were in the championship game last year for the third time in seven years, William & Mary has never made the NCAA Tournament. It’s one of the toughest jobs given the academic requirements, but Tony Shaver has had great success getting them this far.
But even without the Tribe vying for its first trip to the Big Dance, and against the backdrop of a heart-breaking loss in the title game last year, Sunday’s game had all you could want and more.
Star power? Got it. You had the CAA Player of the Year, as well as the third-leading vote-getter in that category. You had the Defensive Player of the Year. You had last year’s CAA Rookie of the Year, for good measure.
Lots of points? Got it. Marcus Thornton, the CAA Player of the Year, tied a career high with 37 points for William & Mary, while teammate Omar Prewitt set a new career high with 33. It marked the first time in tournament history that two teammates scored at least 30 points in a game. Thornton, who is also the program’s all-time leading scorer, also set a tournament record for points in a game.
A toughness display we won’t soon forget? Got it. Terry Tarpey, the CAA Defensive Player of the Year, came down awkwardly on his left foot in the first half, but played 41 minutes. As he was helped off the floor, he put very little weight on that leg; from the replay, I worried it was an Achilles injury. He looked visibly gassed at times, but still found a way to score 12 points and grab ten rebounds, and he made a big left-handed layup late in the game.
Back-and-forth game? There were nine ties and 12 lead changes in this one. Eight ties and 11 lead changes came after halftime. Momentum went back and forth more than that.
Drama? No shortage of it. William & Mary rallied from down five late to send it to overtime. The Tribe had all the momentum early in overtime, but needed a Thornton three-pointer in the last minute to tie it and send it to double overtime as neither team scored again.
It doesn’t stop there. In the final minute of the second overtime, Hofstra’s Juan’ya Green missed a three-pointer, but Malik Nichols chased down the rebound. The ball got back to Green, and he didn’t miss, putting Hofstra up 90-89 with 20.9 seconds left. When Thornton missed a tough shot and Moussa Kone was fouled with 8.3 seconds left, the Tribe’s hopes took a hit. Kone missed the first, so the Tribe wasn’t going to need a three-pointer and called timeout. That set the stage, with Kone making the second free throw for a 91-89 lead.
Thornton dribbled up the left side, and surely everyone in the arena expected him to shoot. He usually did; he’s the best player and he lives for big shots, and he took the big shot last year that just missed. But as he got near his bench, he attracted a help defender, and that left Daniel Dixon wide open in the corner nearby. Dixon is known for his defense, but shoots 46 percent from long range. He missed five games in February, and the team suffered, though the experience the freshmen gained being thrust into a bigger role may be paying off.
Dixon put up the biggest shot of his life, and it found the bottom of the net with less than a second to go. William & Mary’s hopes of reaching the NCAA Tournament are still alive with a 92-91 win.
And Hofstra’s hearts are as broken as they can be. It’s a reminder that only one team can win, no matter how great the game is, and sometimes life is cruel that way. March has the thrill of victory, but also the agony of defeat. Last year, William & Mary experienced the latter, so they know the feeling.
But in the same way that Belmont and Murray State did a night earlier, these two teams reminded us why March is the best month of the year. College basketball has more reminders of that ahead.
Conference Tournament Round-Up
The first bid to go out went to a repeat champion in Coastal Carolina, 81-70 winners over Winthrop in the Big South championship game, a rematch of last season’s final. The host Chanticleers were the last team standing in one of the most competitive conference races and tournaments in the country, and it adds to Cliff Ellis’ legacy as the 69-year-old coach has taken four schools to the NCAA Tournament multiple times.
The second bid went to Northern Iowa, 69-60 winners over Illinois State in the Missouri Valley Conference championship game. That makes bubble teams breathe a bit easier for now, as the Panthers would be going regardless, but it didn’t look so good early on. Northern Iowa was ice cold early on and the Redbirds led 36-22 at the half, but the Panthers took over quickly in the second half and never looked back.
The last bid came courtesy of the Atlantic Sun Championship game, and it was North Florida holding off USC Upstate 63-57 for their first NCAA Tournament bid. The Ospreys made the Atlantic Sun Player of the Year, Ty Greene, work very hard for his 21 points as they came on 9-23 shooting.
The America East championship is set after two dandies in the semifinals. First, Stony Brook went up to Burlington and held off Vermont for a 79-77 win behind a 24-point, 14-rebound effort from Jameel Warney. Then regular season champion Albany had to hold off New Hampshire 60-58 after they were down by three at halftime. Albany will host Stony Brook in a rematch of last season’s championship game on Saturday.
The game that followed the instant classic in the CAA Tournament felt a bit anti-climactic, though it was a good one. There, Northeastern finished the first half with eight unanswered points to take a 33-30 lead, but relinquished that lead in the second half. The Huskies took over late, however, and answered every late UNCW rally to top the Seahawks 78-71. That puts the Huskies, who lost twice to UNCW in the regular season, into the championship game against William & Mary on Monday night, seeking their first NCAA Tournament bid in 24 years.
The MAAC championship game will have a familiar look, as Iona and Manhattan will battle for the third year in a row. Iona put up 57 points in the first half in a 95-77 win over Monmouth, then Manhattan topped St. Peter’s 65-48.
For the first time in Patriot League history, the top seed will not be in the championship game. Lafayette went to Lewisburg and put up 49 points in the second half to knock off regular season champion Bucknell 80-74. The Leopards were carried by four players, as Nick Lindner scored 22, Dan Trist added 21, Joey Ptasinski 18 and Bryce Scott 11. Also going down was the runner-up, as American went to Colgate and beat the Raiders 73-62 to return to the championship game after they won last year.
The Southern Conference championship game is set, with regular season champion Wofford beating Western Carolina 73-61. They will take on a Cinderella team in Furman, who went 5-13 in conference play and knocked off Mercer 52-49 thanks to out-scoring the Bears 29-18 in the second half. Both teams shot below 33 percent from the field.
In the Summit League, the second day of quarterfinal action saw two single-digit games, though the first was deceptively close. South Dakota ran out to a 44-23 halftime lead, then held off a furious rally by IPFW to win 82-73 behind a career-high 29 points from Brandon Bos. The nightcap was close throughout, with Oral Roberts holding off IUPUI 58-56. IUPUI got within one point four times in the final 53 seconds.
The last day of the Big Ten regular season saw no big surprises at the top. Wisconsin went to Columbus and routed Ohio State 72-48, while Maryland also went on the road to win as they beat Nebraska 64-61, setting a school record for regular season wins.
SMU won their first regular season title in 22 years by beating Tulsa 67-62 to finish in first in the American Athletic Conference. Cincinnati finished the regular season strong with a 77-65 win over visiting Memphis behind 19 points and 11 rebounds from Octavius Ellis.
Championship Week is here in full force. Monday’s slate is light, but important as three more NCAA Tournament bids will be handed out and the stage will be set for two more.
- The CAA championship game features Northeastern and William & Mary, two of the four teams that tied for the regular season championship.
- The MAAC championship game pits Iona against nearby rival Manhattan for the third year in a row.
- The Southern Conference has its championship game between Wofford and Furman.
- The Summit League semifinals feature in-state rivals South Dakota State and South Dakota in the first game, then North Dakota State taking on Oral Roberts in the nightcap.
- The West Coast Conference Tournament has its semifinals, with Gonzaga taking on Pepperdine and Portland taking on Brigham Young.
- The MAC has first round action with Northern Illinois at Akron, Ball State at Bowling Green, Miami (Ohio) at Eastern Michigan and Ohio at Western Michigan.
- The MEAC Tournament gets underway with Savannah State and Delaware State battling in Norfolk.