BY CHRIS MARKHAM
Chants of “Eagle Nation” could be heard from 1900 fans all throughout the Anderson Center as the final seconds of the University of Mary Washington’s men’s basketball season ticked away Saturday night as the Eagles fell to the Purple Cows of Williams College in the Elite Eight round of the NCAA Tournament. Considering the team has never won an NCAA tournament game before this year, the game itself is quite a feat.
Despite being undersized, the Eagles managed to be successful this year due to their ability to play angry each game they played. That plan backfired Saturday night after the game-to-game toll finally caught up to them and ended the Eagles’ season shorter than they would have liked.
“I’m so proud of these guys,” said UMW head coach Rod Wood in the post-game press conference. “In defeat, I’m just as proud as I’ve been of these boys after every win. Tonight, we just hit the wall I thought we’d hit a month ago, or in some guys’ cases, two months ago, or four,” said Wood.
The real history was made the night before the Eagles’ season came to an end, however. UMW played host to Virginia Wesleyan in the sectional round of the tournament. It was UMW’s first ever Sweet Sixteen game, and what better place to play it than on their home court?
It was a match up of conflicting styles to say the least. The Eagles, who all year slowed down the pace of their games and played stingy man-to-man defense to compensate for their lack of size, were going against a Marlins team that is known for being big, fast and athletic. The two teams matched up earlier in the year in Norfolk, where the Eagles won in double overtime.
The sold-out Anderson Center crowd was as rowdy as it has ever been. Not one, but two student sections were established, adding more hype than usual to an already exciting game. Students lined up in “Woodville” the morning of the game to ensure themselves a chance of getting a free ticket to the biggest game in UMW history. As it turns out, it was worth the wait.
“Seeing the atmosphere on campus recently, and knowing we did something historic this year, together, is something I’ll always take with me,” said senior guard Marcellus Holley.
The teams went pound-for-pound in the early going as they exchanged basket after basket until the Eagles put together a string of three consecutive three-pointers, courtesy of Bradley Riester and Taylor Johnson, in the first half to force a VWC timeout.
Another 8-0 run later in the half helped to give the Eagles a 15-point lead, their biggest of the game. UMW took an 11-point lead into halftime and was 20 minutes away from another historic win.
The Eagles’ lead quickly evaporated and so did the emotion of the crowd as the Marlins opened the second half on a 14-3 run to tie the game with 15:35 remaining. The teams traded baskets until VWC opened up a five-point lead with almost nine minutes left in the game. UMW then responded with a 6-0 run and took a one-point lead of their own, but the Marlins would still not go away easily.
With the game tied at 68 and 1:32 left, it was do-or-die time for both teams; it was only a matter of who it would be to step into the spotlight.
To the delight of the fans in attendance, it was none other than senior Dom Morra, who converted on a three-point play to give the Eagles the lead for good. Clutch free-throws down the stretch from Johnson and Holley iced the victory, 74-70.
The next day, students once again lined up to receive free tickets courtesy of UMW President Rick Hurley for the Elite Eight game against Williams College, who knocked off Albertus Magnus the night before.
All year long, the Eagles lived and died by the hand of three pointers, and more often than not, they lived.
However, Saturday night the Eagles could not by a three-pointer, as they shot 7-45 (15.6 percent) from behind the arc. The Cows of Williams controlled the game from start to finish, daring UMW to take three-pointers that they normally make.
The physical and emotional tool taken by the Eagles from the previous night was evident their magical season came to an end by a score of 79-46.
“We played a great team, with a great scheme, a great coach, and great players,” said Wood. “What these guys will look back on in years to come will be nothing but great memories, to give every ounce of them and see what is truly possible.”
The Eagles punched their ticket into all of this March madness on March 1 when they took down Christopher Newport in the CAC tournament championship game in the Anderson Center by a score of 65-48. The handful of UMW fans who stuck around in Fredericksburg to watch the rivalry game the day after spring break began were treated to watching the Eagles capture their second CAC championship ever.
The championship gave the Eagles an automatic berth into the NCAA tournament, also for the second time in school history.
“This is the hardest working team I’ve ever seen,” said Riester. “This was for all the guys on the team, the guys who have been here and our coaches.”
UMW earned their spot into the Sweet Sixteen round with two convincing wins in the first two rounds of the tournament against Springfield and DeSales respectively, winning by an average of 24 points.
The first two games also served as a homecoming of sorts for multiple people in the program, but none more so than for head coach Rod Wood. The games were played at Randolph-Macon College, where Wood once played basketball for the Yellow Jackets.
Additionally, multiple UMW players from the Richmond area had many family and friends in attendance to support them along the way.
It was a magical season to say the least for UMW. Records of all kinds were shattered by an incredibly deep and talented group of graduating seniors in the 2013-2014 season, who led the Eagles coming off of a 14-13 record last year to heights never before seen by any player at UMW.
“Any time you have a senior laden team, and they don’t want to play their last game, magical things can happen,” said Wood in an interview with d3hoops.com.
Graduation is sure to take a hefty toll on the Eagles in the offseason, but the memories that the players and student body made this season can never be forgotten.