When the final buzzer sounded on another painful defeat, Marcus Thornton didn't allow the sting to keep him from reflecting on the progress William and Mary's men's basketball program made throughout his four seasons.
Thornton closed his college career with 23 points in seventh-seeded William and Mary's 70-67 first-round National Invitation Tournament loss Tuesday night at No. 2 Tulsa. The dynamic 6-foot-4 senior guard set the school's all-time scoring record earlier this season and will leave Williamsburg with 2,178 career points, good enough for seventh-best on the CAA's all-time scoring list.
William and Mary trimmed a 21-point second-half deficit to two against the Golden Hurricane of the American Athletic Conference, but never pulled level in the game's final stages.
"It's the last game of your college career," Thornton said Wednesday. "It's really tough to swallow but I understood it was coming. It happens in everyone's career. It's been great especially as much as we've improved over the years. I definitely love my teammates. Just to watch everything grow and having the success that we've had, it's been great. It was bittersweet, but not too bittersweet."
The whirlwind postseason experience wound down early Wednesday afternoon for William and Mary when the team's plane landed in Virginia, about 14 hours removed from the season-ending defeat.
The Tribe learned its NIT fate late Sunday night before arriving in Oklahoma on Monday night ahead of Tuesday's contest.
William and Mary coach Tony Shaver said Wednesday that fatigue factored into the result but that Tulsa boasted a higher-caliber of length and athleticism than the Tribe had seen during CAA play.
"It's a huge advantage for them to stay home and not have to travel, but no excuses," Shaver said. "When you get to play in a national tournament, you'll play anybody, anywhere, anytime."
It was the Tribe's third NIT appearance and first since 2010.
Thornton helped lead William and Mary, which finished 20-13, to its first back-to-back winning seasons since 1948-49 and '49-50.
A first bid NCAA tournament bid would have been sweeter, but that's not how Thornton or Shaver choose to define success for a program that clinched the top seed in the CAA tournament for the first time.
"It's a shame to me that that's become the only measuring stick for the success of a program or not — or a team," Shaver said. "Obviously, this team was really successful but didn't make the NCAA tournament."
William and Mary did advance to the league's championship game for the second straight season and fourth time in Shaver's tenure.
Thornton was named CAA Player of the Year and junior wing Terry Tarpey Defensive Player of the Year.
Shaver saw signs this season that success can be sustained, in contrast to its cyclical nature in the past. William and Mary followed a 20-win season in 2009-10 with 10 wins in 2010-11 and six in 2011-12, Thornton's freshman campaign.
"We expect championships now," said Thornton. "It's not enough just to have a good season or to make it (to the championship). We expect to win."
Following William and Mary's 72-61 loss in Baltimore to Northeastern in the CAA title game, Shaver found Thornton shooting alone in Kaplan Arena the morning after the Tribe returned from Maryland. That kind of work ethic Thornton regularly showcases and his ability to lead by example won't easily be replaced.
"And the second thing we're really going to miss is his ability to get his own shot," said Shaver. "That's a rare thing in college basketball sometimes. He's an unselfish player but when we needed him to create for us, he was able to do that."
Even with Thornton gone, William and Mary figures to be in good shape for next season with only one other senior getting regular playing time graduating, post player Tom Schalk. Tarpey and Sean Sheldon each will return next season as the team's only seniors and Omar Prewitt and Daniel Dixon, the team's second- and fourth-leading scorers, respectively, will be juniors.
Thornton isn't sure yet whether his pursuit of playing professional basketball will lead him to the NBA or overseas. He was one of 64 players selected to play in the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, which annually features college basketball's best seniors. The event starts April 8 at Churchland High School.
"Outside of that, just doing what I can to prepare myself and put myself in the best position to be successful," said Thornton. "We'll see where that goes."