Saturday, March 11, 2006

Let's Dance

The 2005-2006 Davidson Men’s basketball season has been one of doubt and uncertainty. How does a team that nearly beats Big East powerhouse Syracuse also lose to lowly Wofford and Western Carolina? Davidson showed flashes of brilliance as they tore apart the Missouri Tigers and Southern Conference leaders Georgia Southern and Elon in Belk Arena. For the Wildcats, the Southern Conference tournament looked to be the equalizer. Coming in as a three-seed, the attitude was wide-spread that the ultimate success or failure of this season would be played out in a three-day stretch in Charleston, SC. For fans looking for superstitious trends, this tournament offered up many: Davidson last won the tournament four years ago, also a year when they traveled to Italy. In 2002, Davidson beat a military school in the first-round and the Citadel’s miraculous upset of Furman and advancing to play Davidson confirmed this trend. While the 2002 victory also came in Charleston, it was the only city that Davidson had won a game away from Belk Arena in 2006. The planets were aligning. The board was set. It had come to time to settle things on the court.

Although Day 1 of the tournament did not involve the Wildcats, its happenings proved very helpful. In a conference that had been up and down all season, two out of the first three games were upsets, eliminating three opponents that had defeated Davidson; while advancing The Citadel, Appalachian State, and UNC-Greensboro, all of whom Davidson had shown mastery over in the regular season. With The Citadel’s upset of Furman, they won their third straight game in a row and earned a spot with the Wildcats in Friday’s nightcap.

Day 2 of the tournament proved to be much of the same story as Georgia Southern and College of Charleston were upset and Elon barely escaped an overtime thriller. By the time Davidson tipped off against The Citadel, only 2 favored teams had secured victories, and in the first 15 minutes, The Citadel tried to keep it that way. Sparked by the hot shooting of J’Mel Everhart and Dante Terry, the Bulldogs hit 14 out of their first 19 shots en route to a 37-18 lead with just over six minutes remaining in the first half. But, like they had done all season long, the Wildcats clawed back to take the momentum into the locker room on a Jason Morton ’06 layup and foul.

“We make it a point of emphasis to get the ‘Big Mo’ right before the half,” said head coach Bob McKillop. “Whether you are up seven or down seven, you want to be able to have confidence going into the locker room.”

Davidson had gone on a 15-3 run to end the half that was sparked by several Ian Johnson ’06 layups and a Matt McKillop ’06 three-pointer. For McKillop, it was just the beginning.

“At halftime, Kenny [Grant ’06] told me that I needed to take some more shots and start leading this team,” said Matt McKillop. “I realized what this game meant, and just started shooting.”

McKillop looked like the guard that Davidson fans hadn’t seen in a long while. He began releasing as soon as he caught the ball and did not submit to his usual hesitation. McKillop tied the game for the first time with 14:42 remaining, then another three-pointer gave the Wildcats the lead just a minute later. Going to a four-guard lineup, Davidson was able to close out on the Bulldog shooters in the second half and held them to just twelve field goals. McKillop finished with 21 points, 18 in the second half, and five three-pointers. Davidson also set the tone for their tournament run by dominating the Bulldogs on the glass, 43-19. With the 79-73 win over the Bulldogs, Davidson earned a spot against the second-seeded North Division champs, Elon.

The last time that Davidson had played Elon, Ian Johnson ’06 had scored 18 points, leading Davidson’s frontcourt and their 34 points in the paint. In the semifinals of the conference tournament, Elon decided to take away Johnson’s inside game. It seems they forgot about his outside game. The Wildcats hit eight three-pointers in the first half, half of which came from the Davidson center.

“We have some offensive sets that are designed to get Ian those open looks,” said Coach McKillop. “He is unique for a tall guy in that he has such a quick release. He shoots like a guard.”

Leading by seven at the half, Davidson was able to maintain its lead throughout most of the second half due to strong defense on Elon’s Chris Chalko and aggressive rebounding by Thomas Sander ’08. Sander finished with a game-high 11 rebounds, leading his team to another formidable margin of 39-23. Down by just four with 43 seconds remaining, Chalko missed a three-pointer and Sander hauled in the rebound. Two Winters free-throws sealed the 65-58 win for the Wildcats, and a berth in the title game against the defending-champion Chattanooga Mocs.

Sunday, March 5, 2006 was a day that many Davidson fans will remember for a long time. After an incredible come-from-behind victory over the Citadel and a close game against Elon, Davidson seemed poised for domination. After an opening Brendan Winters ’06 three-pointer gave the Wildcats a 3-2 lead, they never looked back. Chattanooga seemed unable to buy a basket as they shot 9-36 from FG range in the first half. Davidson, on the other hand, was finding baskets in the interior and on the perimeter. The Wildcats hit five threes and were led by 12 points by Brendan Winters at the intermission. The first play of the second half marked the beginning of the end for the Mocs: Thomas Sander found a cutting Winters who hit the layup and was fouled, extending the Davidson lead to 18 at 38-20. Winters went on to finish with a career-high 33 points, as the Wildcats ran over a demoralized Chattanooga squad.

“We aren’t a shooting team,” said Chattanooga head coach John Shulman. “We were deluding ourselves by shooting so well in this tournament, and I think we realized who we were today.”

If Chattanooga realized that they weren’t fit to play in the conference title game, Davidson finally showed that they are the best team in the Southern Conference. Dominating the Mocs on the boards, in the passing lanes, and in the fine art of putting the ball in the basket, Davidson demonstrated to a national audience with their 80-55 victory that the NCAA tournament needs to watch out; there’s a new upset-minded team ready to make some noise.

As the final buzzer sounded, students hugged their friends, wives hugged their spouses, and sons went to find their fathers.

“My dad has been the most influential person in my life,” said Winters. “For him to see my dreams come true was a special moment for both of us.”

It has always been noted that Davidson basketball is a family tradition. Parents and family from all over the country flocked to Charleston to watch their beloved sons, including 28 members of the McKillop family.

“Did you see all those kids with the painted faces?” asked Coach McKillop. “They look up to Matt as their cousin, and as their hero. He has given them an experience to cherish forever.”

This whole basketball team has given all of us that experience. In a college routine of tests, homework, and residual stress, this week will bring us together in support of our beloved Wildcats. We have been given an experience to cherish forever. And, for one shining moment, Davidson gets to go dance.

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