BALTIMORE, Md. – A year ago, on this same stage, Delaware’s players had their hearts broken.
The Blue Hens squandered a last-minute lead against James Madison that afternoon, falling to the Dukes by a mere point in the Colonial Athletic Association men’s basketball semifinals.
The Hens made up their minds in that moment that next time would be different.
Top-seeded Delaware leaped over that semifinal hurdle this time, pulling away to an 87-74 victory over No. 5 Northeastern at Baltimore Arena on Sunday afternoon.
For the first time since 2001, the last time the Hens played in a conference title game, Delaware is just one victory away from going to the NCAA Tournament. The Hens will face third-seeded William & Mary (20-11) today at 7 p.m. at Baltimore Arena (NBC Sports Network).
The Tribe upset second-seeded Towson, 75-71, in Sunday’s second semifinal.
Delaware (24-9) will be trying to go back to the NCAAs for the first time since 1999, when it made the last of its four trips to the Big Dance.
The Hens say that loss to JMU in last year’s semis left them motivated to go right back after the CAA crown again this winter.
“It’s been the plan since Day One,” said senior center Carl Baptiste. “As soon as we lost that game last year, we were focused and ready.”
“The chemistry of the team is so different from last year, it’s so different,” said junior guard Jarvis Threatt, who collected 19 points, 11 rebounds, five assists and four steals. “We want to go to war for our brothers, our teammates. It’s such a tight group. In my years at Delaware, this is the tightest group we’ve had. We do everything together.
“It’s a loose group. We joke, we play around. But when we play the game, we’ve got our mind set.”
Playing against a Northeastern squad (11-21) it had already beaten twice this season, the Hens found themselves in a battle on Sunday. But, trailing 42-41 early in the second half, Delaware kicked its offense into gear.
A three-pointer by Davon Usher (21) points helped ignite a 33-10 run that left Delaware with a gaudy 74-52 advantage with 8:58 left. That all but sealed the victory.
Baptiste (14 points) bulled his way down low for eight straight points in one stretch before picking up his fourth foul. Devon Saddler (16) then took over, nailing three of the Hens’ five three-pointers in the run as Delaware kept pushing the tempo.
But playing fast is one thing. Playing fast and hitting your shots is another.
The Hens ended up missing just six shots in the second half (19-of-25) for a sizzling 76 percent.
“These guys can score,” said Delaware coach Monte’ Ross. “I can foolishly sit here and tell you that, ‘Oh well, I did this, this and this and that’s why they score.’ These guys have been born to score. Davon (Usher) has been scoring the ball since he came out of the womb and Saddler’s been doing the same thing. He was probably scoring at conception.
“Once these guys get going, once they get on, I pretty much just stay out of the way. …. I trust them. They have so much ability and our firepower is such that I don’t want to get in the way of them. I cringe, our fans cringe at some of the shots that we take. But you have to live with them because there’s an opportunity to do what we just did in the second half.”
Delaware had also started out like it might run away with the game. With the Huskies missing their first 10 shots, the Hens stormed out to a 19-5 lead.
But as quickly as it had grown, that advantage vanished.
Northeastern, which reached the CAA finals a year ago, answered with a 26-7 spree of its own. That left the Huskies with a five-point cushion.
Delaware recovered enough to take a 39-37 lead into intermission. Ross gave his players credit for not letting the fact that they blew a 14-point lead faze them.
“I thought our guys were really, really resilient tonight,” he said.
On Monday night, the Hens will try not to be fazed by playing on the big stage of a conference title game.
As the regular-season champion, Delaware is guaranteed an NIT berth if it loses. But playing in the NCAA Tournament is what every college basketball player wants.
This will be the program’s seventh appearance in a league final. The Hens are 4-2 in those contests, including 3-0 when they’ve been the No. 1 seed.
William & Mary’s appearance is something of a surprise. Towson was the preseason CAA favorite and the tournament was being played in its backyard.
Still, this is the Tribe’s third trip to CAA title game. Delaware beat William & Mary by margins of five and 17 points this season and has won the last six meetings in the series.
This will be the first time the two programs have met in a conference tourney.
“I tell you, Delaware is one of the best offensive teams I’ve seen in this league since I’ve been here,” said Tribe coach Tony Shaver. “There’s no question. They have so many explosive players.
“So I would normally sit here and tell you that it’s going to be the defensive side of the ball (that decides the game). But I’m probably going to tell you, off the top of my head, we’re going to have to score the ball. We’re going to have to make shots.”
The Hens don’t particularly care how many points they score in Monday’s game. It only matters that it’s more than William & Mary scores.
One more victory would earn them something they would only dream about before now.
“It means a lot for us to get past the semifinals,” Saddler said, before knowing Delaware’s opponent in the title game. “My first three years, we never got to this point. I just feel something special about this team. I think we can make this happen.
“We’re just going to stay confident. We’ve got one more game and we’re just going to leave it all on the floor.”
Delaware is now 11-0 all-time in conference tournament games as the No. 1 seed … Baptiste played only 16 minutes before fouling out. … With William & Mary’s upset win, this will be the eighth straight year that at least one Virginia school has been in the CAA title. … The Hens are trying to become the northern-most school to win the Colonial crown. … The Tribe is looking for the program’s first NCAA bid.
Sports editor Andy Walter can be reached at 741-8227 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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