By Dave Fairbank, email@example.com
9:50 PM EDT, March 9, 2014
BALTIMORE — For the second consecutive day, William and Mary took Tony Shaver's words to heart and the Tribe now finds itself one win away from the program's first NCAA tournament berth.
Displaying a truly collective effort at both ends of the floor, the Tribe overcame Towson 75-71 Sunday in a Colonial Athletic Association tournament semifinal at First Mariner Arena.
"We told our players before the game: One-on-one we might not win this battle, but as a team we can be better than they are tonight," Shaver said.
Third-seeded William and Mary (20-11) made it to the CAA title game for the third time in seven years and will face No. 1 seed and regular-season champ Delaware 7 p.m. Monday. The Blue Hens ran past Northeastern 87-74 in Sunday's other semifinal.
William and Mary lost both regular-season games to the Blue Hens, just as it did to Towson (23-10), the preseason favorites. But Sunday, the Tribe was efficient on offense, effective on defense and battled the bigger, stronger Tigers on the boards, particularly in the second half of a taut, high-level game.
Shaver colorfully scolded his team during a timeout in the second half of Saturday's quarterfinal, spurring a runaway win against College of Charleston. He was more measured Sunday.
"We talked a lot to this team about mental and physical toughness and we really displayed it tonight," Shaver said. "We just couldn't be much tougher than we were tonight."
Marcus Thornton led the Tribe with 21 points, more than he scored in both regular season losses to Towson combined. Brandon Britt added 16 and Kyle Gaillard scored 10 of his 12 points in the second half, in addition to spending much of the game attempting to check Benimon.
"Kyle was tremendous tonight," Shaver said. "Really and truly, if we gave out an MVP award, it probably would go to him. He was terrific in his defense on Benimon tonight. He played him in the right spot on every possession."
Benimon, the 6-foot-8 conference Player of the Year, managed 18 points and five rebounds. But he also committed six turnovers — two in the final 1:15 as the Tribe clung to a 73-71 lead.
His last turnover came with five seconds remaining as he drove to the basket for the potential tying points. Terry Tarpey was the primary defender, but the entire Tribe was focused on him — an illustration of what Shaver told his team about collective effort.
"I think that last possession is a great example," Shaver said. "Our team defense was perfect. Guys were in the right spot, the right place, Terry made a great play. If Benimon had seen space, Terry would have been in trouble, quite honestly. Really, five men stopped that play right there."
Thornton was credited with the steal, but he deferred to his teammates.
"We know he's a great player so it takes five guys — make him take a tough shot, get a turnover," Thornton said. "We were just in the gaps, being where we were supposed to be, position-wise. I saw him drive and I stuck a hand in there, got my hand on the ball, it rolled around a little bit and Terry came up with the steal. Just a great all-around team defensive effort on him to get the stop."
Thornton was fouled on the Tribe's ensuing inbounds play and sank both ends of a one-and-one free-throw opportunity with 4.9 seconds remaining for the final margin, capping a superb individual performance.
"A couple games, a few games I haven't shot that well of late," he said. "It was good to get back on track. It wasn't a lack of confidence. I'm always confident in myself. But the ball rolled my way tonight and I was glad it did."
It's peculiar to credit defense in a game in which both teams shot better than 50 percent from the field, and better than 60 percent in the second half. But W&M battled Towson to a push on the boards in the second half and limited the Tigers, who lead the CAA in free throw attempts, to 20 foul shots. Towson shot 61 free throws the day before against James Madison.
W&M scored on seven of eight possessions during one portion of the second half, turning a two-point lead into a 54-47 spread. Each time the Tigers drew within one score, the Tribe answered. W&M scored on six of seven possessions late, the last a step-back Thornton jump shot for a 73-70 lead with 2:24 remaining.
William and Mary's task is now to figure out the Delaware puzzle. The Blue Hens came from behind to beat W&M in Newark, 76-71, and ran away in Williamsburg 89-72.
"Delaware is one of the best offensive teams I've seen in this league since I've been here, there's no question," Shaver said, briefly riffing on Monday night. "They have so many explosive players. I would normally sit here and tell you it's going to be the defensive side of the ball.
"I'm probably going to tell you off the top of my head that we're going to have to score the ball, we'll have to make shots. And just like every other game this weekend, we have to rebound the basketball. We're not the biggest, strongest most powerful team. We have to rebound the basketball."
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