WILLIAMSBURG, Va. — The College of William & Mary turned 322 years old last Friday. Don’t you think it’s time the basketball team finally got to play in the NCAA Tournament?
The alumni would likely be all for it, up to and including Thomas Jefferson.
Isn’t March Madness an unalienable right? Well, no.
In William & Mary’s case, it requires winning the Colonial Athletic Association tournament, which the Tribe were 80 seconds away from doing last season with a six-point lead against Delaware in the championship game, when the walls caved in and they ended up losing 75-74.
So now they’re back, trying to get kicked out of the club that includes Army, St. Francis (N.Y.), Northwestern and The Citadel — the other four original Division I schools never to get a tournament bid. And they might have the team to do it.
“We came within one point of making history,” junior forward Terry Tarpey said. “Everyone went into the offseason with the mindset that we don’t want that bad taste in our mouth again.”
Which brings us to the current situation. The 15-8 Tribe have sole leadership in the CAA, something they’ve never seen this late in the season.
But also not seen too often on a William & Mary basketball team is a cast of characters as interesting as the current roster.
Senior guard Marcus Thornton is 98 points away from setting the school career scoring record of 2,052, which is currently owned by Chet Giermack from 1950, and the oldest career scoring mark still standing in all of Division I college basketball.
Swingman Omar Prewitt’s mother was an all-SEC player at Kentucky and Division III Final Four coach at Centre College, where his sister was an All-American.
Guard Daniel Dixon’s mother was a New England Patriots cheerleader.
Tarpey — recently put up the first triple-double in the 110-year history of William & Mary basketball — is the son of … (yes, that Terry Tarpey) New York University’s all-time leading scorer. The next-generation Tarpey leads the CAA in rebounding, even though he’s only 6-foot-5.
But for real attention, you should see what happens when he walks into the room with his sister Kaitlyn. Miss Teen America of 2008 and a top-10 finisher in the 2014 Miss America pageant.
Imagine how many of Tarpey’s friends ask for an introduction to his sister, hoping for date possibilities. “I just usually say they have no chance.”
Lots of solid family stories there, and coach Tony Shaver doesn’t mind. “It may sound silly, but one of the things I really look at in the recruiting process is how guys treat their parents,” he said. “If they treat them with respect, and kindness, and a little bit of love. Those are the kind of guys you want to coach.”
— Tony Shaver
Shaver understands about working your way up. He once walked on at North Carolina and played hard enough to convince Dean Smith to grant him a scholarship. Twelve years ago, he took over a William & Mary program that had won exactly two CAA tournament games in 18 seasons, and now has led it to the title round three times.
But the leader of Tribe was not haunted by March’s ultimate near-miss.
“We had a great year. The fact that one shot didn’t go in at the end to get us into the NCAA Tournament, I don’t think that should define our team,” he said. “It’s just become the only measuring stick for college basketball, it seems like.
“I’m very bothered by that.”
But it would be nice to make it, right?
“To be part of the team that finally breaks that curse, if you will, that’d be an honor.”
Thornton: “It would mean so much. We’ve started at the bottom and worked our way up and chipped away at it. That would put the icing on the cake.”
Thornton’s freshman team went 6-26. “People saw us as a guaranteed win.” he said.
But not anymore. By last March, the Tribe were 20-game winners and on the brink of the NCAA battle royale, had they just held that lead, had Thornton’s last shot against Delaware only fallen.
Well, spilt milk, on Thornton’s cake.
“Everything happens for a reason,” he said. “It was motivation for us to get better and improve. You can’t hang your head. You have to have a short memory to get better for your teammates and your program.”
These guys can score in a hurry. There was the 24-0 run against Western Illinois, the 25-0 explosion against James Madison, the 70 points or better in 11 consecutive games, something not witnessed here in 45 years. William & Mary is seventh in the nation in shooting at 49.7 percent and tied for 13th in 3-point percentage at 40.2.
“We’ve got to get better at defending,” Shaver said the day after William & Mary lost at Charleston 80-72. That very week he had warned his players that one day the shots wouldn’t go in, and they’d have to find out if defense and rebounding could get them through.
“We got the answer last night,” he said. “The answer is no.
“We have a target on our back now, and we’ve got to learn to respond to that.”
The day after he said that, they won a tough defensive game at then co-leader UNC-Wilmington 56-53. They’re learning.
So the beat goes on at William & Mary and March is coming. “Obviously it would mean a great deal to this team,” Shaver said of an NCAA bid. “And I think of all the people who have played and coached here. It would mean so much to the people that have put in their time here over the years.”
Chet Giermack, for instance. The nation’s longest reigning Division I school career scoring leader now lives in Erie, Pennsylvania, pushing through his 80s. He still remembers how the hook shot was his go-to play, and how he hit a Shaq-like 47.5 percent from the line as a sophomore. When asked if he wished there had been a 3-point line back then, he answered without hesitation, “I just wish I had made my free throws.”
But no, he won’t mind giving up the record he has owned for nearly seven decades. He visited campus last season and watched Thornton play.
“I never thought it would last this long. He deserves it,” he said. “He’s not only a scorer, he’s a player. It won’t bother me.”
Giermack’s senior team went 23-9 and beat North Carolina, North Carolina State, Virginia, Maryland and Wake Forest, but lost the Southern Conference NCAA bid to North Carolina State, who went to the Final Four. Giermack not only had lousy free-throw shooting, but lousy timing. He’d love to see this team get there, partly for Shaver’s sake, partly for what it could do for recruiting.
And forget TV, if the Tribe make it.
“I would probably go see them, wherever they were,” Giermack said. “Sure. First time.”
He’s waited a long time for the first time. They all have at the second oldest college in America.