By Chris McManes
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. – Snow blanketed much of New England on Thursday and Friday. On Saturday at Chandler Gymnasium, an avalanche gave way in the form of 3-pointers. When it was over, Catholic University was buried deeper than Williams College.
No. 8 Williams shattered a tie game in the last five minutes by sinking five consecutive 3-pointers to emerge with an 89-78 victory over ninth-ranked CUA in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
The two traditional Division III powerhouses combined to hit 24 field goals from beyond the arc. The Ephs (25-4) finished 14 of 32 (43.8 percent), while the Cardinals were 10 of 19 (52.6 percent). Those four additional treys were essentially the difference in a game that was within three points with 3:25 to play.
"That was a heck of a basketball game between two very high-powered programs," CUA Coach Steve Howes said. "I said to somebody earlier [that] this was an Indiana-Kansas-type matchup, and I think it played itself out that way, except in the last five minutes when we couldn't get a stop and couldn't get a score."
Williams' point total and 3-pointers were the most the Cards have given up all season. CUA tied its season mark for 3's. The Ephs also attempted more trifectas than any Cardinal opponent.
With the win, which came before 1,561 fans, Williams will host No. 25 Virginia Wesleyan in a Sweet 16 game on March 16. The winner will head to Salem, Va., for the Elite Eight.
"I'm not sure that college basketball gets anything better than that today," said Ephs Coach Mike Maker, who has led his players to two Final Fours and a national runner-up finish in his five years at the helm. "[We had] two proud basketball programs with rich traditions going toe-to-toe. It was an entertaining game in an electric environment."
CUA, the Landmark Conference regular-season and tournament champions, concludes one of its finest seasons ever at 25-4. The Cardinals were ranked in the D3Hoops.com Top 25 ever since they opened the year with victories over two nationally ranked opponents. The Cards were 5-1 against teams that advanced to the NCAA Tournament, two of which are in the Sweet 16. Their win total ties for third-best in the program's 102-year history, and is the most in Howes' nine years as head coach.
CUA played most of the second half without its dominant senior post player, Chris Kearney, who was nearly unstoppable early but never returned after sustaining a sprained left ankle.
Sophomore Steve Limberiou paced the Cards with 26 points and seven rebounds. Freshman point guard Bryson Fonville had 18 points and six assists in directing the CUA offense, at times brilliantly and acrobatically. Kearney played 23 minutes and finished with 16 points and seven rebounds.
Williams' Michael Mayer, who guarded Kearney for much of the day, led all scorers with 27 points. Taylor Epley added 19 points, Daniel Wohl 16 and James Klemm 12. Nate Robertson had 10 points and 12 assists.
Mayer was 12 of 19 from the floor. He powered the Ephs to a 42-28 advantage on the boards with a game-high 10 rebounds, and recorded five blocks. He scored 10 points after Kearney departed. Both big men are finalists for the prestigious Jostens Trophy.
"[Kearney] was really good," Mayer said. "He was really athletic and really skilled and a tough cover. … I felt bad for him when he got hurt. But it was a really fun matchup, and I knew it was going to be a big one and a tough one."
Williams was 8-for-15 on 3's after intermission. Maker learned to favor shots from the bonus sphere after working under Michigan Coach John Beilein at West Virginia.
"I believe in the 3-point shot," Maker said. "And when you have somebody in the hole (Mayer) who can score, and then you surround him with guys who can really shoot and a point guard that's as cerebral and smart at attacking as Nate, I think it's a weapon that we believe in.
"I don't mind shooting them, especially late."
The loss brought to a conclusion the careers of Cardinals Nate Koenig, Shawn Holmes and Kearney. The senior leaders gutted it out when six other members of their 2009-10 freshmen class did not. The trio posted a four-year record of 83-31 (.728), going 18-9, 21-9, 19-9 and 25-4. They appeared in three ECAC South Region Championship tournaments and won five inseason tournaments, including two on the hosts' home floor.
Moreover, the seniors played exhibitions game at Notre Dame (2010), George Washington (2012) and Florida (2011). They competed against Ben Hansbrough (Indiana Pacers) and Bradley Beal, a Washington Wizards first-round draft pick. Their greatest accomplishment was leading a team of youngsters that began the season with a rash of injuries and a host of question marks to the Cardinals' first conference title and NCAA Tournament appearance in six years.
Kearney is one of 10 Jostens Trophy finalists by virtue of his on-court performance, his 3.5 grade-point average and his work in the community. The 6-foot-7, 220-pounder was named to the CoSIDA Capital One Academic All-District team and is up for national recognition. He hopes to be invited to play in the Division III All-Star game during the Elite Eight.
In last week's 67-61 victory over Staten Island, Koenig, Holmes and Kearney each made huge contributions in the final minute. Holmes was named first-team All-Landmark Conference and Kearney was honored by the league's coaches as Defensive Player of the Year and Player of the Year.
This senior class will long be remembered by CUA fans.
"I told them I loved them and I appreciated everything they did for me and the program for the last four years," Howes said. "They did something that's incredibly hard. They led a group of guys to the NCAA Tournament, guys who had never been there and had never won there. Our underclassmen owe them a great deal because those seniors showed them the way. No senior class had been able to show [the 2013 seniors] the way. That's very hard to do.
"Those seniors showed them what it's like to win games in March and games to get to March. I couldn't be more proud of their accomplishments."
Tied at 70 following a 3 by Koenig (nine points, five rebounds), Williams began its assault from long distance. Wohl hit a 3 from the right corner on an inbounds play, Klemm followed from the top of the key and Robertson hit one from in front of the Ephs' bench. Limberiou, who finished 6 of 9 from downtown, hit another one to bring the Cardinals to within 76-73 with 3:25 to play. He was 10 of 16 overall.
Limberiou, trailing on the fastbreak, scored after taking a backward pass from Fonville from between his legs to drain the trey.
"He's the best shooter I've ever recruited," Howes said. "He came up big today. I knew he would."
Benefitting from Kearney's absence inside, the 6-9 Mayer scored again down low, and Epley nailed a deep one from the top of the key. Klemm drained one from the same spot to make it 84-73 with 1:47 to play. Numerous times during the Ephs' 18-3 onslaught, CUA was unable to follow its own missed shots with offensive rebounds.
Kearney's untimely injury, the first time he's missed significant minutes all season, was something the Cards couldn't overcome.
"It changed everything we do defensively," Howes said. "We couldn't switch the zones because Chris is an important part back there. He's able to get out and extend. Dan Elliot was in there playing with one arm (torn left labrum) that needs surgery. He gave us everything he had. He's not even 50 percent [healthy]."
After being treated by CUA Associate Athletic Trainer Jaime Walls, Kearney twice attempted to put pressure on his injured foot, but to no avail. The Cardinals' leading scorer (16.7 ppg) and rebounder (7 rpg) was still limping noticeably after the team's six-hour-and-40-minute bus ride back from northwestern Massachusetts.
"I just went up for an offensive rebound and came down and landed on someone's foot," Kearney said. "It's really unfortunate that it had to happen that way, but it shows a lot [that the] guys playing without me [were] still playing hard."
Holmes was unavailable to play, giving freshman Kyle Phanord his first start. His 3-ball from the right wing gave the Cards a 17-11 lead. Williams responded with a 13-2 run that included 10 points in the paint and a triple by Wohl. Limberiou stopped the blitz with a 3 from the left side, and Kearney took a behind-the-back, fastbreak pass from Fonville for a two-handed slam to knot the game at 24.
From there, the Ephs hit a trio of treys in a 13-6 run to lead 37-30 with 2:55 left before halftime. A Limberiou 3 with 6.7 seconds remaining brought CUA to within 39-38. Wohl's jumper from the left wing concluded first-half scoring and put Williams on top, 41-38.
Mayer and Kearney had 13 points each at the break. Epley and Limberiou scored 11 apiece.
After the Ephs notched the first field goal of the second half, the Cards tallied eight straight points. An Epley 3 tied the game at 46. Kearney went out of the game at the 12:12 mark and was replaced by Elliot, who immediately stole an entry pass to Mayer that led to a Fonville basket. An elbow jumper by Limberiou made it 60-56 Cardinals midway through the period.
The Cards, second in the nation in fewest turnovers per game, had just six. Fonville did not have one in a full 40 minutes of action, and took two charges.
Howes could not be happier with his rookie lead guard, who was discovered by former CUA Assistant Coach Eyal Fierst. When Fonville emerged from the locker room, Howes told him, "This is your team now."
Wohl sank all three of his 3-point attempts in the second half to finish 4 of 5 on 3's. Epley, whom Howes tried to recruit to Brookland, was 4 of 10 and Klemm 4 of 11. Koenig was 2 of 4 for the Cards.
In addition to his passes bringing to mind the basketball wizardry of Pistol Pete Maravich, Fonville amazed with a number of precision drives in which he knifed past defenders and contorted his body to get off shots in the lane. The 6-footer from Greensboro, N.C., started all 29 games and was second on the team in field goal percentage (.510). He averaged 9.3 points, 3.4 rebounds and 4.2 assists.
"I saw the play where Fonville, in front of the [Cardinals'] bench, went between his legs backwards to Limberiou for the 3," Maker said. "I mean, he's a freshman; he doesn't play like a freshman. He plays like [my senior point guard Nate Robertson]. I think he's as smart a point guard as I've seen in my five years at this level. He's fantastic. He makes everybody else around him better. He's a very smart player.
"He reminded me of Nate and the kid Darris Nichols I coached at West Virginia."
The last thing Howes said to his club's ninth edition before they stepped off a bus for the final time in 2012-13 was that he was grateful for the opportunity to coach them. "I wish we could have gone further," he said.
Cardinal Nation agrees.
Chris McManes is a media consultant to the CUA men's basketball team.