The University of Mary Washington’s men’s basketball team entered last Saturday’s road game at Wesley College knowing that a win would earn them the conference’s regular season crown as well as the top-seed in the Capital Athletic Conference Tournament.
Yet the day before the crucial road test, the Eagles found out that they would be traveling to Delaware without their head coach Rod Wood, who was placed on administrative leave following a DUI arrest on Feb. 15.
Associate head coach Dan Bairley acted as head coach for the game, and while he acknowledged Wood not being there had an effect, he thought the team was mature enough to deal with the adversity.
“We have five seniors and we have really mature kids,” Bairley said. “This isn’t happening early in the year. We’ve played together since October, so we’re a pretty unified group. Our kids fight for each other and they’ll fight for whoever’s on the sideline and give them everything they have.”
The Eagles didn’t get their biggest game of the season to-date off to the best start, as UMW shot just 25 percent from the field in the first half, and shot just seven percent on 3-pointers.
“We were 1-14 on 3’s in the first half,” Bairley said, “and they were wide open looks, looks that we normally knock down. Our offense was working. They weren’t doing anything to stop us, we just didn’t shoot the ball well in the first half.”
Despite the early shooting woes, the Eagles only found themselves down one-point as they headed to the locker room for intermission. Mary Washington improved their shooting in the second half, particularly from long-range, where they hit eight 3-pointers and shot 47.1 percent from distance.
The rediscovery of their long-range stroke helped UMW lead after the first 10 minutes of the second half. But the Eagles’ problem was that though they heated up, they didn’t get as zoned in as Wesley, who shot a scorching 64 percent from the field after the break. Bairley said that the Wolverines second-chance points and the inability of his team to defend the paint was the deciding factor.
“They had 40 of their 73 points in the paint,” Bairley said. “That’s something that we talked about prior to the game and something we knew we needed to defend. That was the single biggest key.”
Wesley took control in the final 10 minutes, extending their lead to as many as nine points. Though the Eagles hung around late and made it interesting, they eventually fell 73-70 to settle for second place in the conference.
UMW broke even on the glass (47 to 47) and won the turnover battle (11 to 16), but it wasn’t enough. Senior Mike Harvey led the Eagles with 20 points, while sophomore Bradley Riester (17 points and eight rebounds) and freshman Sean Armstrong (16 points and nine rebounds) gave Mary Washington production off the bench.
Now the men’s basketball team tries to put the bitter loss behind them and prepare for tonight’s CAC semifinal matchup against Hood College.
“[Hood] has one really strong scorer in Cameron Cook, and both games he’s played well against us so we need to make sure we shut him down,” senior captain Tad Dickman said.
Harvey agreed with Dickman that defense would be key.
“Both games we played against them we forced a lot of turnovers, and in the game up there that was the big thing,” Harvey said.
The crucial thing, according to Bairley, will be how the team deals with the emotions that they are experiencing.
“It takes on a different degree of emotion and incentive because of what’s happened with coach [Wood],” Bairley said. “I’d lie to you if I said it didn’t, but that’s something that we need to bury deep down and channel it and remain composed.”
But one thing Bairley isn’t worried about in this win or go-home game is the effort his team will bring.
“Our kids are going to fight their asses off [tonight],” Bairley said. “They’re going to play as hard as they have in their entire lives. I can guarantee that.”