BALTIMORE (AP) — Delaware guard Devon Saddler is headed to the NCAA tournament. A few years from now, the kid just might find himself working as a basketball coach.
Saddler showed his prowess as a strategist in the closing seconds of the Colonial Athletic Association championship Monday night, and the result was a 75-74 victory over William & Mary that thrust the Blue Hens into the NCAA tournament for the first time in 15 years.
Delaware trailed by a point when coach Monte Ross gathered his team to draw up a play with 25 seconds left. Ross wanted to have Saddler, the Blue Hens' all-time leading scorer, take the pivotal shot. "The first thing he said was, 'Get the ball inside to Bap,'" Ross said.
Good move. Carl Baptiste made the go-ahead layup with 10 seconds left, and not long after that the Blue Hens (25-9) were cutting down the nets at the Baltimore Arena to celebrate their fifth trip to the NCAA tournament.
"We've had a heck of a year," Ross said. "To cap it off like this is really special." The Hens, who previously qualified in 1992, 1993, 1998 and 1999, were making their first appearance in a league championship since losing to Hofstra in the 2001 America East tournament.
This one wasn't easy. Delaware trailed 74-68 with 1:20 left before scoring the game's last seven points. After Saddler made two foul shots, Jarvis Threatt added a three-point play and Baptiste finished the comeback with a bullish layup.
"I tell you what, it was crowded in there when we got it to him, but he powered it into the basket," Ross said. William & Mary had one last chance, but Marcus Thornton bounced a jumper off the rim just before the buzzer sounded. An instant later, Hens fans rushed the court to celebrate with the team.
In the end and from the outset, the 6-foot-9, 260-pound Baptiste was too much to handle for the third-seeded Tribe (20-12). He finished with a career-high 24 points, including 16 in the first half on 7-for-7 shooting. He finished 9 for 11 from the field, in addition to going 6 for 7 at the foul line and grabbing eight rebounds.
Thornton scored 22 and Tim Rusthoven had 16 for William and Mary, which trailed by 12 early in the second half. "We fought and fought and fought until we got back in it," coach Tony Shaver said. "But they made some big plays."
Despite playing in the CAA championship game for the third time in the last seven seasons, William & Mary remains in search of its first NCAA tournament appearance. Along with Army, St. Francis (N.Y.), Northwestern and The Citadel, the Tribe are one of five original Division I members never to have made the NCAAs.
"We felt like we should have won the game," Thornton said. "We were in position to do it, so to lose is disappointing." Delaware led 39-33 at halftime and went up 47-35 with 16:42 remaining before William & Mary used a 12-4 run to close to 51-46. Baptiste got his third foul with 11:37 left and was on the bench when Brandon Britt scored for the Tribe to make it 55-53.
It was 65-62 before layups by Rusthoven and Omar Prewitt gave the Tribe their first lead since 30-29. William & Mary increased its advantage to 69-65 with 3:34 to go before Darvon Usher popped a 3 for Delaware.
Thornton answered with a jumper and Prewitt drilled a 3-pointer to make it 74-68, but the Tribe would not score again. William & Mary advanced by defeating second-seeded Towson in the semifinals after losing twice previously to the Tigers. William & Mary could not duplicate the feat against the Hens, who have won seven straight against the Tribe, including 76-71 and 89-72 previously this season.
Delaware overcome a 2-for-12 performance beyond the arc to go up 39-33 at halftime. William & Mary made seven of its first nine shots in racing to an 18-10 lead. The Hens then rattled off seven straight points before Kyle Gallard interrupted the run with a three-point play.
Baptiste followed with a three-point play of his own and added two layups in a 12-3 spree that put Delaware up 29-24. Rusthoven responded with three successive baskets for the Tribe, the last a hook in the lane over Baptiste, but the Hens closed the half with a 10-3 spurt.