UNCW falls to William & Mary in battle for first place

McLeod Brown | Sports Editor

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The UNCW men’s basketball season has been defined of both, close victories and defeats. Ten of the Seahawks’ 23 games have been decided by seven points or less.

Saturday’s marquee matchup with William & Mary represented the team’s most important game of the season to date.

With first place in the CAA on the line, and before a near-capacity crowd of 5,088 fans in Trask Coliseum (only 112 away from the team’s first sellout since February 2008), UNCW was unable to pull out another close win, falling to the Tribe 56-53.

Saturday’s nightcap proved to be a much different contest than when the teams first met in Williamsburg on Jan. 14 where the Tribe rallied from a 20-point halftime deficit to storm back and top the Seahawks 76-72.

Instead, the second edition of this year’s conference matchup between the teams featured a much more back-and-forth contest with 12 lead changes and 11 ties during the course of the game.

UNCW (13-10, 8-4) led for more than 22 minutes, but couldn’t stave off William and Mary’s (15-8, 9-3) comeback as the visitors were able to claw back from a 44-40 disadvantage in the final frame to take the lead for good on senior Tom Schalk’s put-back layup with 1:39 left.

After sophomore Daniel Dixon’s 3-pointer was off the mark, Schalk soared in to grab the board and give the Tribe a 54-53 lead.

Following a UNCW turnover, preseason CAA Player-of-the-Year Marcus Thornton knocked down two free throws to stretch the lead to three. UNCW freshman guard Jordon Talley’s three-pointer hit off back iron on the other end to seal the game.

Both teams found it tough sledding on the offensive end throughout the night. UNCW finished the evening shooting 19-for-66 (29%) from the field, their second worst offensive performance of the year trailing only a 16-for-62 (26%) performance in 58-56 overtime win at College of Charleston earlier in the year.

The Tribe, meanwhile, who now sit alone atop the CAA standings, one game ahead of UNCW and Northeastern, matched their season-worst performance from three-point range, finishing 1-for-11 (9%) from deep.

“I thought it was a very hard fought game,” said UNCW first-year head coach Kevin Keatts. “If you look at it, both teams didn’t have obviously a great offensive night. I feel like we struggled offensively, but so did William & Mary and it’s one of those games where you just got to win it on the defensive end and it’s unfortunate that anybody had to lose a game like that. We’ve been on the winning end of the that when you look at it as far as Delaware, Drexel, and that College of Charleston game. Unfortunately came up a little short. It was one of those things where I feel like whoever had the ball last had the opportunity to win the game.”

There were multiple reasons for the hype surrounding the contest, with the Seahawks battling for first-place in the conference coinciding with UNCW all-time career assist leader John Goldsberry having his jersey retired at halftime.

The fans’ excitement throughout the contest was apparent, with UNCW even being assessed a technical foul for fans throwing objects onto the court late in the first half.

UNCW was able to force 16 turnovers in that first half, but only converted them to 14 points in holding a slim 29-26 advantage over the Tribe at the intermission.

The Tribe used a 6-2 run to take a 32-31 lead on Daniel Dixon’s layup to begin the second frame. Both teams went punch-for-punch down the stretch, with seven lead changes checkering the half.

The Seahawks notched that 44-40 lead on Freddie Jackson’s layup with 8:38 remaining, but watched the Tribe fight back for their sixth straight win over UNCW.

“Everybody is saying it’s two of the best teams in the league,” Jackson said. “That’s why it was so hype, but I felt like it was just us and them. Our crowd comes out every home game with the same enthusiasm. There were just more people this time. As far as ranking the games that I’ve played, it’s up there. It was great to play out there; I just wish we could’ve pulled it out.”

Thornton led William & Mary with a game-high 18 points on 6-for-11 shooting. Schalk proved to be the difference, however, finishing with a career-high 13 points and five rebounds.

Redshirt junior Craig Ponder led UNCW with 14 points, while Jackson added 12. Senior forward Cedrick Williams finished with five points and 12 rebounds.

Even though the team lost, the change in mindset surrounding the Seahawks has opened up eyes beyond Wilmington.

“It’s always been a great basketball town, I think,” said William and Mary coach Tony Shaver. “Traditionally, a rich program. I think Kevin has done a good job of getting people excited…I told people when we beat them in Williamsburg that this team is for real. There’s no question in my mind about that.”

UNCW hosts College of Charleston on Wednesday before welcoming Northeastern to Trask next Saturday for their homecoming game.

William & Mary also heads into their own two-game home stand, hosting Elon on Wednesday and Delaware on Saturday.

As the regular season winds down and the team begins to rev up for the conference tournament, there’s reason to be excited for what’s to come for the program beyond this season.

“Whoever won this game doesn’t necessarily guarantee that you’re going to be the conference champion,” Keatts said. “As far as the atmosphere, it was great. It was great for the fans and I think they understand the program and the direction that it’s going in. Certainly these guys are playing extremely hard every day, but as far as the big picture, I looked at it as just a CAA game because just so much can happen.”