Saturday, March 5, 2016

From zero to classic, one year later: William & Mary 92, Hofstra 91

Was this worth 3,900-plus words? Hell yes.

Some classic games meet the hype. Others turn surprisingly transcendent, as was the case a year ago this weekend, when the William & Mary and Hofstra men’s basketball teams played a semifinal game that will go down as one of the greatest games in CAA Tournament history.

The Tribe came back from a nine-point deficit in the final six minutes of regulation to force overtime but didn’t win until the last second of the second overtime, when Daniel Dixon took an unexpected pass from Marcus Thornton and drained a 3-pointer to lift the Tribe to a 92-91 victory.

It went from zero to classic in the blink of an eye. My good friend and William & Mary grad Rob Russell (@batogato on Twitter), ever succinct, came down to my seat after the first half, after regulation and after the first overtime just to yell “HOLY SHIT!” before turning and running back to his seat one section over. 

I wrote, umm, many thousand words about this game last March, but never quite put them into a coherent order. Even a year later, it’s all a blur, with members of both teams accidentally calling it a triple-overtime game during interviews this week. 

“It seems like it was five years ago,” William & Mary coach Tony Shaver says with a laugh. “It was an incredibly well-played game by two really good teams. The shot went in for us at the end.

“Great college basketball game. No question about it.”

I thought it’d be fun, with the Tribe and Dutchmen opening CAA Tournament play today on the same side of the bracket and with a chance to play once again in the semifinals on Sunday, to revisit those in-the-moment thoughts and mix in some hindsight observations from the competitors as well as the fans. Quotes from this week are in italics while any postgame quotes are in regular font. Hopefully, we all did justice to one of the great games in league history. 


One reason nobody thought a classic was going to unfurl at tipoff: William & Mary not only swept the regular season series, the Tribe did so while never trailing. But the second game—an 80-78 win at Hofstra in which Dion Nesmith missed a game-tying jumper at the buzzer—was far closer than the first, a 100-79 rout. 

The third meeting didn’t start in unforgettable fashion. William & Mary raced out to a 19-9 lead, and it felt as if the Tribe would cruise to a third straight win over the Dutchmen and leave my wife and I heading back up I-95 on Sunday night—she could not miss work on Monday—disappointed but not demoralized that our tentative plans to head back for the title game Monday afternoon were going to fall through.

But then the Dutchmen went on a 17-3 run in which freshman Rokas Gustys, maturing into a big-time player and leader before our eyes, scored all eight of his points. The trip for Monday was back on!

“I thought he had a good tournament in general,” Joe Mihalich says of Gustys, who scored 11 points on 5-of-6 shooting in a 74-57 win over James Madison in the previous day’s quarterfinal. “The tournament more specifically that one stretch.”

The run also included William & Mary’s Terry Tarpey suffering an ankle injury and returning a few minutes later to a huge roar from the Tribe faithful.

“I missed the opening game (of the regular season) because I rolled that same ankle.” Tarpey says. “When I rolled it during the tournament, I was like ‘Oh gosh.’ But I definitely didn’t think it was a game-ending injury. My adrenaline was going. I knew it kind of hurt, but I got it re-taped right away and then during halftime I was able to hold up fine.”

Tarpey’s return was the when my wife and I looked at each other with knowing glances for the first time.

We exchanged those knowing glances again after the final five baskets of the first half went like this: Juan’ya Green 3-pointer. Marcus Thornton 3-pointer. Thornton 3-pointer. Thornton 3-pointer. Green 3-pointer.  Pantless Griffins 35-32.

“I think going into the second half, (he was thinking) this is a crazy game, this is going to be very memorable,” Green says. “I think everybody had that in the back of their minds, that this is going to go down as one of the (best) games ever played.”

Over the first 10 minutes of the second half, that three-point lead for William & Mary turned into a one-point lead for Hofstra turned into a seven-point lead for William & Mary turned into a four-point lead for Hofstra. Of the Dutchmen’s first 21 points, 19 were scored by either Green or Dion Nesmith. Of the Tribe’s first 19 points, 17 were scored by either Thornton or Omar Prewitt.

The back-and-forth was interrupted when a 57-57 tie turned into a 66-57 lead over a 95-second span in which the previously ice-cold Brian Bernardi, Nesmith and Bernardi again drained 3-pointers.

“I was like, all right, we might be able to make it to the championship game,” Bernardi says. 

Pure euphoria, the kind where you are screaming so loud you can’t even hear yourself. William & Mary timeout, 5:29 left. Bernardi was greeted at the Hofstra huddle by Speedy Claxton. A past legend and a player creating his own all-time moment, right now. 

We were going to remember where we were for this, for the rest of our lives. I knew what I was going to write for Monday morning. I knew the Tweets I was going to make Monday. I’d have to write during the Northeastern-UNCW game, and when I got home, and I’d have to figure out how to schedule Tweets, and I’d have to sleep at some point there because we were going to leave my wife’s school at 1 PM and come back after the game and I was going to do all the driving. But it would work.

My timeline was in a state of ecstatic disbelief, filled with Hofstra fans unused to this kind of fortune. 


On the other side of things, the timeout rejuvenated the Tribe as well as their fans.

“To that point, where (Hofstra) really made a run to really take command of the game, something just lifted us up as a team,” Dixon says. “I think all the fatigue and everything went out the window. Just ready to go.”

“I’m a generally pessimistic sports fan—Red Sox by birth, Tribe by choice—but even when (they) went down late, I thought we had a chance,” Rob Russell says. “We weren’t playing badly, just weren’t getting bounces and Hofstra made those triples in short order.”

The Tribe closed to 68-64 at the under-four media timeout. Bernardi 3-pointer with 1:41 left. 73-68. Thornton missed a layup with 1:25 left. Nesmith rebound. THIS IS HAPPENING.

Thornton scored the Tribe’s final five points of regulation, during which Bernardi was whistled for stepping out of bounds under the Dutch basket and that familiar, terrible sense of dread—born in childhood Catholicism, bred by two decades of rooting for Hofstra sports—crept in as we begin pondering how the 2014 CAA title game ended: With William & Mary blowing a six-point lead in the final 1:20 and Thornton missing a shot at the buzzer in a 75-74 loss to Delaware.

Nesmith, who up to that moment was the Dutchmen’s leading free throw shooter with an 83 percent success rate, missed the front end of a one-and-one with 29 seconds left that could have given the Dutchmen a four-point lead. Kone missed a layup at the buzzer. Overtime. 

“The game could have turned in so many different spots, where it could have gone either way,” Dixon says. “There were just so many plays, so many different things that went out way to win the game.”

“Bernardi’s turnover and Nesmith’s missed free throw—yeah. we got a little lucky,” Rob says. 

Of the 20 points in the first overtime, 19 were scored by Thornton, Prewitt, Bernardi and Green. Nesmith fouled out during a 5-0 run by William & Mary to open overtime, which got me screaming about #CAAHoops conspiracies.

Bernardi and Green combined for seven in a row. Hofstra leads, we are screaming again, a full, guttural, unintelligible, dizzying roar. 

Prewitt’s two free throws tied it 80-80. Green drained a 3-pointer, and flashed three fingers at those of us sitting behind press row. Thornton hit a 3-pointer to tie it. In the final 12 seconds, Ameen Tanksley missed a 3-pointer, Gustys missed two free throws and Thornton missed an off-balance 3-pointer at the buzzer. Double overtime. 

Twitter is a hot mess. Hofstra fans, familiar with what might be happening here, were joined by #CAAHoops fans, past and present, as well as plain ol’ college hoops fans. Everyone, focused on this game. There was something pretty cool about being at the center of the universe. 

Second overtime, not at all like the first. The Dutchmen’s lineup featured three starters (Green, Bernardi and Tanksley) as well as Gustys and Malik Nichols, the latter of whom played just seven minutes in regulation. Nichols opens overtime with only his second basket of the game. Twenty-one seconds later, Gustys fouled out.

The Tribe’s first six points were scored by Prewitt (two free throws) and Tarpey (two free throws, one basket). Two Bernardi free throws tied it before Tarpey’s layup gives the Tribe the lead. Green then drained a 3-pointer with 22 seconds left. Another one-point lead for the Dutchmen and another three fingers flashed by Green.

Thornton missed a jumper with 12 seconds left. Moussa Kone rebound. He’s fouled! Victory, once again so close. But Kone hit just one of two free throws and here come the Tribe, one more time.

Thornton, whose entire season was about rewriting the previous one’s ending, dribbled up the court.

“The possibility of that game being the last time I ever saw Marcus Thornton play for William & Mary was very prominent in my mind, and he was sublime for long stretches of it,” Russell says. “Great meeting of player and moment. He was like Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp in ‘Tombstone,’ splashing across the creek after Curly Bill, refusing to die.”

Figure there were a little less than 4,000 people in the arena—the 3,703 people in the stands, the 80 or so people on each team’s staff, plus 80 or so writers and administrators along press row. Every single one figured Thornton—who finished with 37 points and launched 29 of William & Mary’s 57 shots—would take the shot.

“I knew Marcus was going to shoot, and the memories of 2014’s last-shot miss against Delaware were definitely in my mind,” Russell says. 

“We knew Marcus Thornton was going to get the ball,” Green says. “He dribbled it up the court and once he passed half-court, I thought our guys were going to trap him, or at least get the ball out of his hands.”

The Dutchmen double teamed him. Then there was a defensive breakdown, and two Hofstra players collided, which momentarily left Thornton uncovered. 

“But once he crossed half-court, it seemed like he had a wide-open shot,” Green says.

Bernardi, assigned to Dixon, saw Thornton open and converged upon him along with two other teammates. Thornton went up with less than two seconds left. But at his apex, he threw a no-look pass to Dixon, alone in the corner.

“I would rather him take that shot than the other guy taking the shot,” Green says “But he made a great play."

“Hofstra knew he was going to shoot,” Russell says. “Right up until he didn’t.”

“It was obviously an instinct play,” Dixon says. “I originally thought Marcus would take the shot. That’s just what he does.

“I saw my defender leave me. I saw two people go up to him. I still thought he was going to shoot it, because he’s made the shots with the hands in his face, all sorts of stuff. And then at the last moment I saw him kind of turn and he was going to pass it to me. So I was like, OK, I’ve got to be ready (laughs).”

Nichols raced over, but didn’t get there in time to put a hand in the face of Dixon, who was able to catch, set and shoot.


“Not sure how many guys in the country wouldn’t find a way to take that shot,” Shaver said afterward. 

The arena was an air hanger. With the William & Mary fans to their left and behind them jumping up and down, Tanksley and Bernardi stared at each other in shock. Mihalich stood several feet on to the court, slumped, his hands in his pockets.

“Lost our shit when the ball dropped,” Russell says. “Just screamed out loud. We were sitting directly across the arena from Dixon’s Dad. Watching his joy was so cool.”

A time out was called and three-tenths of a second were added to the clock, but it doesn’t matter. It’s finally over. Bernardi’s pass off the scoreboard was relevant only for box score purposes.

Buzzer. Exhausted elation as the Tribe storm the court, jumping, hugging and screaming.

“I’m not really one to show a lot of emotion on the court,” Tarpey says. “That game that was played—when I was done, I was screaming my lungs out. I was pumped up. It was just really cool to be a part of that, to get that much intensity out of you.”

Minutes later, Thornton and Prewitt walked into the interview room, where they had the task of trying to describe what they’d just experienced.

“The atmosphere for that game, the setting, being in the CAA Tournament, being able to play in the championship game—I mean, yeah, that was definitely the craziest game I’ve ever played in,” said Prewitt, who finished with 33 points in 47 minutes. “For Daniel to hit that shot, Marcus to pass up the shot. Your best player, you definitely want to take that shot at the end. And for him to pass that up, I think that’s a lot of courage.”

After the players exited, Shaver stepped to the podium. But he needed a moment. Or two.

“Can’t breathe here,” he said, before picking up a bottle of water. “One sec.”

Four gulps of water later, he sat down. 

“Wow, what a great college basketball game,” Shaver said. “Type of game you feel bad for anybody that doesn’t win it. I really admire the way (Hofstra) played. They had a great ballgame.”

That it was a great ballgame didn’t provide much solace to those in Hofstra uniforms and those wearing Hofstra T-shirts in the stands.

After the buzzer sounded, I banged my head twice on the metal railing in front of me. I imagined this was the sporting version of shock, in which the adrenaline is still flowing and I don’t yet feel the pain. But I already know this is the very worst feeling I’ve ever experienced at a sporting event. I am going to remember where I was for this, for the rest of my life.

I walked up to Rob, and we shared a man hug. We said stuff to each other, but it was pretty much gibberish. Amazingly, neither one of our heads spun off the shoulders.

“I felt lousy for you when you walked up the stairs to see us,” Russell says. “Can’t even imagine what that felt like. Sports sucks.”

By the time we left Royal Farms Arena, the pain was there, gaining intensity with every passing minute.

“Well…” my wife said as we waited to cross the street. “That’s all I can say about that.”

Before beginning the ride home, I called my Dad to let him know we were on the way. I didn’t have to tell him what had just happened.

“Hof-stra,” he said, emphasizing the first syllable as he always does, “would have won if they hit their free throws.”

We knew. God did we know.

Of course, it felt worse for those on the court.

After the buzzer sounded, Mihalich shook hands with the Tribe staff and players and walked off the court, hunched over, each step slower than its predecessor. I was reminded of Bill Parcells after the 1998 AFC Championship Game, when the Jets blew a 10-point third quarter lead and lost to the Denver Broncos, 23-10. It was the fifth time in his Hall of Fame career a Parcells-coached team had lost in the divisional round or beyond.

“I always think the same things,” Parcells said the next day in a cramped interview room at Weeb Ewbank Hall at Hofstra. “‘It’s another offseason, another draft, another preseason, another training camp, another regular season, another semifinal game just to get where you are standing.’”

Shaver’s sincere words a few minutes earlier provided no consolation to Mihalich, nor to a glassy-eyed Green or a stoic Nesmith.

“We asked these kids to leave everything they have on the floor—their hearts, their souls—and they did that,” said Mihalich, who appeared to be on the verge of catatonia. “It’s hard to stand in front of them and help them realize just how proud you are of them when their hearts are broken and the dream of going to the NCAA Tournament is over for Dion and Moussa.”

The images of those final few seconds remain engrained in the minds of everyone who witnessed them.

“So much of my memory of that game has been condensed into the final five seconds, like a black hole compressing all matter into pinhead-sized superdensity,” Russell says, trying to show off his William & Mary degree.

Tarpey and Dixon said they both watched the game with their families last summer.

“It kind of gave me chills,” Dixon says. “My stomach was turning, even when I watched the game, even though I know what’s going to happen.”

A day after the game, Mihalich said he would never get over the loss.

“Never have, never will,” he says. “But it’s what motivates you.”

The pain and motivation was as immediate for his players—just as the loss in the 2014 CAA championship game drove William & Mary for the next 52 weeks.

“I was very emotional after the game,” Bernardi says. “That was the toughest loss I’ve ever been through. Just being through that, though—it made the whole team stronger.”

“We didn’t watch the whole game—we usually just watch the last-second shot, the last shot that killed us,” Green says. “And we just used that as motivation and tried to go into every game (thinking) don[t ever take a possession off. Because it can be that one shot, one rebound or one steal to get you the win. So never take a possession off.”

The weekend ended in unhappy fashion for William & Mary, too: The Tribe never led in the championship game the next night as it fell to Northeastern, 72-61. Shaver and his players acknowledged this week they might have been especially drained by the double overtime win over the Dutchmen, though nobody used it as an excuse.

“You play that intense a game for, what was it, three overtimes?” Shaver says. “It definitely had an impact. But you get a chance to play for a championship, none of that matters. You find a way.”

They will both try to find a way again this weekend, as the Dutchmen and Tribe attempt once again to end their respective championship droughts. William & Mary is one of five original Division I schools to never reach the NCAA Tournament. The Dutchmen’s 15-year drought is a mere drop in the bucket in comparison, though there is an extra layer or two of melodrama given the litany of soap operatic twists the program has endured since it last danced.

And have you seen the bracket? If the Dutchmen beat Drexel today and William & Mary beats James Madison immediately thereafter, the two teams will meet again, in the same round, in the same spot, with the same thing at stake as a year ago.

Everyone asked about a potential rematch this week offered the politically correct response about not looking too far ahead or past any potential previous opponents. But Mihalich could barely contain his glee at the possibility of pairing up again against the Tribe.

“It’d be great,” he says. “It’d be great.”

1 comment:

NUHF said...

And Northeastern fans in Baltimore didn't want that game to end. For reasons that were all too obvious. We thank our #NorthernBias cohorts for that classic game.