It was not supposed to end this way.
With blowout victories in February over Guilford (103-58 in a battle for first place in the ODAC) and Hampden-Sydney (90-67 on Senior Night), these Randolph-Macon Yellow Jackets seemed prime for a run in the NCAA Tournament comparable to head coach Nathan Davis’ first team in 2010 that made the Final Four.
Add to that homecourt advantage after the Division III Tournament Selection Committee gave Randolph-Macon a first/second round pod at Crenshaw Gymnasium over the weekend. Their first opponent? The DeSales Bulldogs, a team the Jackets owned a 4-1 all-time record against, including a win in the 2010 Tournament in the Sweet Sixteen.
With Crenshaw still in a frenzy following the first of the first-round games Friday night, which saw the nearby University of Mary Washington Eagles of Fredericksburg eliminate Springfield College (MA) before their fans, Eagles Nation was replaced in the bleachers by Jacket Nation. But there were also a small, but very loud contingent of Bulldog fans, who were as feisty and tenacious as the senior guard duo about to take to the Crenshaw floor, and about to break the heart of Yellow Jacket fans everywhere.
This Tournament game began like many Randolph-Macon home games before it, back and forth play early, followed by a Jackets run to take the advantage. It was freshman Jamie Wilson who single-handedly offered up the cushion, with an eight-point outburst that turned a 4-4 tie into a 14-8 advantage.
Guards moving inside for layups, some on putbacks of misses, helped Randolph-Macon build a 27-18 lead with 4:14 left in the first half. Many Jacket scripts this year at this point called for either steady play or an outburst to extend the lead well into double digits by intermission.
Friday night was much different.
The Jackets went ice cold, going 0-for-9 to end the half, missing four layups in the process, giving DeSales the chance to cut the lead to 27-25.
“That was a huge stretch of the game,” DeSales head coach Scott Coval said. “We thought that if we could keep the game close in the first half, get to the 7- or 8-minute mark in the second half at three or four points either way, that we’d have a good shot at that point.”
The 4:14 stretch without a point proved to be critical not just because Randolph-Macon lost the chance to create meaningful distance and force DeSales out of their initial game strategy, but because it gave the Bulldogs the chance to unleash the speed and offense of their guard tandem, Mike Coleman and Kyle Hash. Hash, their sixth man, led the Bulldogs with 11 points at halftime. Coleman only had six.
Davis, the Jacket players and fans, are likely still seeing Coleman in their dreams.
Showing perhaps the fastest first move Randolph-Macon had seen all season, Coleman went on a tear, driving to the basket, hanging seemingly forever for jump shots, making them even when the Jacket defense was excellent, drawing fouls or dishing to Hash.
The work wore down the Jackets physically and got Coleman and Hash to the free throw line, where they were absolutely lethal down the stretch. Between them, they were 23-of-24 from the line, 19-of-20 in the second half and in overtime.
“It wasn’t anything that our guys were doing wrong, Coleman just made a couple of plays,” Davis explained quite accurately, looking back to two shots in overtime that helped DeSales break away for good.
Before that, Coleman and Hash, who accounted for 55 of DeSales’ 76 points, put the Bulldogs exactly where they wanted to be. With eight minutes left, after two Hash free throws, DeSales led 48-44. The Jackets’ explosive offensive had scored just 17 points in 16 minutes, and the low-post presence of Andre Simon and Joe Hassell had been frustratingly taken out of their offensive rhythm.
Wilson, who hit three shots early and seemed to have the hot hand, played only 14 minutes, prompting some to wonder if something was wrong with him. The Jackets did, though, improve their shooting from 30 percent in the first half, to 42 percent in the second.
After a three from Paul Pammer, the Jackets were down 58-50 with 4:48 remaining. In a turning of the tables, it would be the Bulldogs shutting down offensively in the final stages of this half. Two Coleman free throws with 2:59 left would close their scoring in regulation up 60-55.
It should have been much closer. Before the Coleman two, Chris Hamilton and Andre Simon missed four straight from the charity stripe before one from Hamilton cut the lead to 58-53 with 3:55 left.
For a time, the Jackets couldn’t take advantage, partially due to good Bulldog defense. Randolph-Macon only took two shots in the next two minutes. The score was still 60-55 with a minute to go. Trent Walker drove and drew a foul, making two free throws, making it 60-57 with 54 seconds left.
Davis depended on his defense to make a stop and they did. Coleman missed a three-point try near the end of the shot clock. The Jackets rebounded and called time out with 11.9 seconds left.
“We drew up a play I’ve been calling since my Bucknell days,” Davis noted. “Everybody runs it.
“Wilson did exactly what he needed on the ball screen. [ Simon] did what he needed to do on the ball screen, got Chris just enough room. It was a tough shot, but he made it,” Davis continued.
The ball ended in the hands of Chris Hamilton, whose 8-for-8 performance from beyond the arc in their last home game against the hated Tigers electrified Crenshaw. His shot, with a DeSales defender practically velcroed onto him, with 4.2 seconds left, blew the lid off the building, tying the game at 60.
In a stunning admission, Coval said he wouldn’t have been surprised had Hamilton had a chance at a four-point play.
“Our defense did what we were supposed to do. I’m not too sure he didn’t get fouled on that shot, either. He made a great shot,” Coval said.
A prayer at the buzzer for the Bulldogs was not answered and overtime began. That’s where Coleman and Hash picked right up where they left off. The aforementioned Coleman shots by Davis, a jumper on the right baseline while floating in the air, and a three-pointer from near NBA-range, both with Randolph-Macon defenders in his face, helped rebuild the Bulldog lead to 69-62 with 1:32 left.
This time there was no stopping the Bulldogs, no miracle shot, and in the end, the final score read DeSales 76, Randolph-Macon 70. The Jackets missed five shots in the extra session, the Bulldogs just two.
“Give DeSales credit,” Davis noted. “It wasn’t our effort and honestly it wasn’t anything our guys did wrong. Unfortunately, when you’re in a close game if they make big plays, your guys are in trouble. We try all the time to make sure we do enough things right throughout the game so it doesn’t get to that point.”
Coleman finished with 29, Hash 26 for the Bulldogs. Connor Sullivan joined Hamilton as co-leaders for Randolph-Macon in scoring with 13 points, while Trent Walker added 10. Wilson scored his only eight in the first half, never taking another shot.
Andre Simon, in his final game as a Yellow Jacket, was held to six points. Joe Hassell had eight. Akeem Holmes only played nine minutes and scored five, only two underneath. DeSales’ game plan to disrupt and take away down low worked.
“Over the past six weeks, we’ve been trying to take away other team’s strengths, and we knew they had two really good inside players,” Hash explained.
“You can’t take away everything and Macon is really good, so we go into the game asking, ‘What can we take away?’” Coval said. “Simon is a really good player, so we gave a lot of defensive help on him and tried to take away and protect the lane as best we could.
Coval went on to point out a key statistic.
“They (Macon) still got 15 offensive rebounds, but having said that, I’m really proud of our players,” he said. “We had 49 rebounds to their 35…we knew this would be a daunting task.”
In his initial comments in the post-game press conference, Davis used the word “devastating” to describe the loss. It was entirely appropriate. Jacket Nation is still shell-shocked, realizing that a team with so much potential, that played in such dominant fashion during the homestretch well into February, ended with a two-game losing streak at the worst possible time.
But for as many ways as there were offensively for the Yellow Jackets to beat opponents this year, one sure way they could beat themselves was by a cold shooting performance. After shooting 56.7 percent in the Hampden-Sydney win, in their final three games, the Jackets shot 40, 32, and 35 percent from the field. They were 67.9 and 70 percent from the free throw line in the two postseason losses.
“Anytime you lose it hurts, but when it ends your year, in a lot of ways it’s devastating,” Davis said. “They had a great game plan and made enough plays in the second half and in overtime to get the job done, and we didn’t.”
It will take time for Davis and his returning players to process and try to put the events of Friday night behind them and turn the page to the 2014-15 season. Despite this season’s painful ending, there is so much on the horizon to be excited about.
The inside scoring and defensive force that is Andre Simon must be replaced. Jamie Robinson also graduates, but his playing time was little this year after fighting back from a foot injury. All the outside sharpshooters, Hamilton, Sullivan and Wilson return. Hassell and Holmes will anchor up front, with the likes of Walker, Evan Jackson, and Lamont Moore returning and Marcus Badger at the point.
If the Jackets can put away the pain of early March and not let it linger into late spring and summer, and can replace not just the scoring and presence, but leadership of Simon, there is no reason to believe the pieces aren’t in place for another special team for next season.
And it could be a team who learns, in the hardest of ways, how to be more prepared, and more productive with the basketball, when it matters the most.