Cinderella Sighting: Elon, Northeastern Still Have Eyes On NCAA Prize

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It took anywhere between 11 and 18 years. But on Sunday night, the madness finally came back to March in the CAA.

A league that usually lives by A-B-C — always bet chalk, or, if you prefer, anything but chaos — this time of year has its first Cinderella since 2009 in Elon, which trailed for all but three seconds in its first-round game Saturday afternoon but led wire-to-wire in a stunning 68-63 win over second-seeded William & Mary in the first game of the Sunday evening session.

The seventh-seeded Phoenix (13-20) are the first team seeded lower than sixth to reach the CAA semifinals since 2009, when 11th-seeded Towson upset sixth-seeded Drexel and third-seeded Northeastern before falling to George Mason. And Elon’s win ensured the no. 2 seed would not reach the CAA semifinals for the first time since 2002, when second-seeded George Mason fell in the quarterfinals to 10th-seeded Hofstra, which lost in the semifinals to VCU.

The madness continued, albeit at a slightly reduced clip, in the final game of the night, when sixth-seeded Northeastern outlasted third-seeded Towson, 72-62. While the seeds suggest upset, Northeastern was actually favored 69-68 at KenPom.com, which identified the Huskies last week as the CAA team with the second-best chance to win the championship.

And to think, the day started in relatively routine fashion with top-seeded Hofstra overcoming a slow start to beat eighth-seeded Drexel, 61-43, and fifth-seeded Delaware knocking off fourth-seeded Charleston, 79-67, in the annual coin toss game.

But thanks to the chaos of the evening session, the seed combination in tonight’s CAA semifinals is going to add up to the largest sum (who says math can’t come in handy?) since 2002, when the number one, three, five and 10 seeds reached the semifinals.

“I think it speaks to the parity in this league,” said Northeastern head coach Bill Coen, the dean of CAA coaches. “I think there’s so many teams coming into this tournament felt like they had a chance to win, maybe more so than — this is my 14th year — any other year that I’ve been a part of the CAA.”

The teams responsible for generating madness did so in decidedly different fashions. The win by defending champion Northeastern was a reminder of how dangerous teams with title-winning experience can be, especially when they are able to adjust to a new set of challenges. 

Of the Huskies’ nine CAA losses, eight were by five points or fewer, including three in which they led by at least 16 points. History seemed as if it might be repeating itself when Towson whittled a 16-point second half deficit to four three different times. But Dennis Tunstall was whistled for a charge with 2:42 left, after which Northeastern mounted a game-ending 12-6 run.

“We had a lot of frustrating losses, I know our team felt like we left a couple of victories on the table,” Coen said. “But we were always competing. And what I was impressed (about) with this group is day after day in practice, they didn’t hang their head. They didn’t feel sorry for themselves. They came in and were searching for the answers.

“So I think when you do that, when you stay with the problem longer and you show some perseverance, good things eventually happen for you. And a good thing happened tonight.”

If Northeastern is the team relying on championship muscle memory, Elon is the squad that’s here because it doesn’t know it’s not supposed to be. The Phoenix was a consensus pick to finish last in the preseason poll under first-year head coach Mike Schrage and then opened league play with a 1-7 mark.

But Elon went 6-4 the rest of the way with upset wins over Northeastern and Charleston before earning a stunning win Saturday, when the Phoenix spotted James Madison the game’s first 12 points yet stormed back and earned a 63-61 victory on Marcus Sheffield II’s jumper with three seconds left.

On Sunday, Elon raced out to a 13-2 lead and answered every single flurry offered by William & Mary, which twice got within two points in the second half in front of a decidedly pro-Tribe crowd at the Entertainment & Sports Arena but could not overcome the Phoenix even after the latter’s big men Chuck Hannah and Federico Poser fouled out.

“History is great, but it’s all new for us,” Schrage said, “We’ve just kind of embraced being a new group together this year. (The rarity of their semifinal appearance is) good to hear, but it’s all about just living in the moment, taking advantage of this opportunity. We don’t want this season to end. We went through some tough times this year. Such a credit to our guys, they just kept fighting, staying together. This team will forever, ever, ever be remembered for that.”

The flip side to madness is a favorite coming to grips, in real time, with midnight striking on its dreams. Towson coach Pat Skerry, who took over a program that had recorded 15 consecutive losing seasons prior to his arrival, directed the Tigers to at least 18 wins and a top-three regular season finish for the fifth time in the last eight seasons.

Towson entered the tournament as arguably the hottest team in the league with five wins in its final six CAA games, including a bruising 76-65 win over Hofstra on Feb. 27 that snapped the Pride’s eight-game winning streak.

But the little bit of good fortune that Skerry recognizes a team needs in March was once again absent Sunday as the Tigers battled early foul trouble (every starter except Brian Fobbs picked up at least two first-half fouls) and a penchant for turnovers (15, their most since committing 17 turnovers against UNC Wilmington on Jan. 4) while extending the CAA’s longest active title game drought to 19 seasons.

“Obviously we’re disappointed in our play tonight,” Skerry said. “That’s the unfortunate part of the deal. And you’re always playing a good team. So that’s part of the deal, too. And we knew that coming in. Not a great night to have one of our subpar performances.”

The loss to Elon ended a memorable and often-magical season for William & Mary, one in which it seemed the Tribe’s epic NCAA Tournament drought might finally end in a fashion nobody could have foreseen last spring, when the firing of longtime head coach Tony Shaver polarized one of the CAA’s most fervent fan bases and led to the transfers of four starters as well as star big man Nathan Knight’s decision to declare for the NBA Draft without hiring an agent.

Knight eventually decided to return for his senior year and new head coach Dane Fischer navigated a potentially unmanageable situation, first by surrounding Knight with an impressive cast of fill-ins — senior Andy Van Vilet, who redshirted last season, along with graduate transfer guards Bryce Barnes and Tyler Hamilton — and then by managing to coalesce all the new pieces into a cohesive unit whose chemistry was on display even after the defeat Sunday, when Fischer kidded Knight about his dalliance with the NBA.

Behind Knight, who leads the nation with 23 double-doubles and won the CAA’s Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year awards, the Tribe raced out to a 6-0 start in CAA play. But much like Hofstra in 2011 — when a potential league favorite was decimated by transfers following the exit of head coach Tom Pecora yet stormed out to a league-best 5-0 start behind Player of the Year and NBA-bound senior Charles Jenkins — William & Mary couldn’t sustain its early-season pace.

Following the loss Sunday night, Fischer gathered the Tribe near mid-court for one more huddle at the end of a season that will be remembered as fondly by William & Mary fans, for different reasons, as Elon’s will be by its fans.

“When we got here, I think we had six guys or seven guys on scholarship,” Fischer said before a small grin crawled to his face. “And this guy strung me out as long as he could with the whole NBA thing.

“But for us to come together the way we did — and I told them afterward, this isn’t a group of guys playing basketball. This is a team. And I’m going to remember that.”

Unfortunately for the Tribe and the Tigers, they were on the wrong end of a quarterfinal session Sunday night the CAA is going to remember for a long time to come as the night the madness returned to March.

“Really excited to still be playing basketball in March,” Coen said. “It’s the greatest month of the year.”

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