CAA Hoops: There’s something happening here

Wins like these make a season special. William & Mary was awful until it was amazing Thursday night. The Tribe won a game it had every reason to lose. The ending was so dramatic, frenzied, improbable, coach Tony Shaver figured he might forego his typical postgame cool down period and watch a replay of the final minute some time around 3 a.m.

Sure the comeback came against the last-place team at home. William & Mary had no business trailing James Madison by 20 points in the first place. Down nine points with 45 seconds remaining, the Tribe appeared to be losing hold of first place before having a chance to know how it felt.

Then, Connor Burchfield stole the ball. Known for his shooting because he’s one of the best in the nation but having an off night (1-for-6 on 3s), the slender senior from Concord swiped the ball from Stuckey Mosley and converted the layup.

Through most of the first 35 minutes the Tribe was outhustled, executed poorly and allowed too many offensive possessions to end with dribbles into danger, straying from the driving, passing and ball sharing which enabled it to enter the game as the nation’s best shooting team. Players complained about officials’ whistles, made silly passes and missed the open shots they’d been hitting.

But when Burchfield cut the deficit to seven points with 43 seconds remaining, Kaplan Arena got loud, the team’s belief grew even stronger and the Dukes helped out any way they could, missing four free throws and committing two turnovers in those final possessions.

Matt Milon rattled in a 3-pointer with 4.7 seconds remaining to tie the game. Burchfield tipped the ball away from Mosley enough to throw off his timing before he launched the potential game-winner and the game went to overtime.

JMU scored five points in the final 150 seconds. But the Dukes were feisty if not polished. After falling behind by four points in overtime, they regained a one-point lead with 1:15 remaining when freshman Matt Lewis (game-high 22 points) buried two free throws. Milon answered again, cutting backdoor to take a feed from Burchfield and finish the layup. Burchfield made another steal (and later a block) and the Tribe did winning things to increase its lead to two games over five teams in the conference standings.

When the final buzzer sounded, the 1.36 points per possession and 64 percent shooting William & Mary allowed in the first half had long been forgotten. And in less than 48 hours the Tribe welcomes Towson, who Shaver described as one of the toughest and most talented teams in the conference. After being picked 8th in the preseason poll, William & Mary has played with a chip on its shoulder for most of the season, Shaver said. The Tribe lost that edge for a while on Thursday night but picked it back up just in time.

Observations

  •  Two-time CAA Player of the Week Nathan Knight struggled early against JMU’s aggressive defensive game plan. He never looked completely comfortable and foul trouble set in during the second half, sending him from the game with 2:32 remaining and his team trailing by 10. Knight needs to develop his right hand because conference opponents are going to sit on his left. Still, on an ‘off-night’ he ended up with 21 points, five rebounds and 12 of 12 on free throws in 29 minutes.
  • JMU’s Matt Lewis played like an all-league guard in the first half (6 of 7, 19 points). He played like a freshman in the second half (0 of 6, 1 point). He’s going to be a good player for the Dukes. I like his confidence, speed and shooting stroke. He’ll play a bunch of minutes and be a 1,000-point scorer, at the least.
  • William & Mary is winning hard fought games because individuals are proving they are more than one-dimensional players, for the good of the team. Not only did Burchfield make significant contributions on the defensive end, but Justin Pierce overcame a 1-for-5 shooting effort by snagging 17 rebounds – with 16 in the last 25 minutes. The Tribe is overcoming a lack of depth – Shaver’s rotation is essentially six players with cameos from forward Cole Harrison and guard Oliver Tot – because players understand they have to fill multiple columns in the box score and make contributions that go beyond.

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