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Tuesday, October 26, 2021

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Richmond men’s basketball season comes to disappointing end with 68-67 loss to Mississippi State in NIT quarterfinals

<p>Richmond Spiders' guard Jacob Gilyard gathers his team in a huddle during the National Invitation Tournament quarterfinals at the UNT Coliseum on Thursday, Mar. 26, 2021. <em>Photo courtesy of the NCAA</em></p>

Richmond Spiders' guard Jacob Gilyard gathers his team in a huddle during the National Invitation Tournament quarterfinals at the UNT Coliseum on Thursday, Mar. 26, 2021. Photo courtesy of the NCAA

The University of Richmond men’s basketball team's high-potential season came to a disappointing end after the team was eliminated from the National Invitation Tournament on March 25 following a last-second three by the Mississippi State Bulldogs making the final score 68-67.

The Spiders came into the game without their two leading scorers, graduate students Blake Francis, who is suffering a hip and back injury, and Grant Golden, who is suffering from a fractured finger.  Francis averaged 16.1 points per game this season while Golden averaged 12.7.

Despite being short-handed offensively, the Spiders still managed to shoot the ball much better than they had all season, especially in the first half when they went six for thirteen on threes. 

Senior Jacob Gilyard led the team with 13 points in the half, going four for six from the three point line. Junior Matt Grace added seven, which included two threes. 

Gilyard also demonstrated why he is a finalist for the Lefty Driesell Award in the first half, as he recorded three steals and played a large role in helping the team force 11 Mississippi State turnovers. Gilyard leads all of Division I in steals per game this season with an average of 3.55 and is currently fifth all-time in D-I history in career steals with 354.

“Gilyard is an unbelievable player,” Mississippi State head coach Ben Howland said in the post game press conference. “I mean the guys top five in the history of college basketball [in steals] -- he’s an incredible player.”

With about five minutes left in the first half, the Spiders had their largest lead of the game when they were up by seven. The Bulldogs managed to climb back, however, to close out the half with a tied 34-34 game thanks to 16 first-half points from sophomore Iverson Molinar.

“This is a SEC team with a couple of great players, and they really fought and didn’t back down,” the Spiders' head coach Chris Mooney said referring to Mississippi State during the post game press conference. “The game plan was to apply ball pressure and make it difficult for them in terms of starting their offense and making passes, and they were really up to the challenge.”

Mississippi State carried its momentum into the second half, starting off on a 7-3 run. Going into the 16 minute media timeout, the Bulldogs were up 44-39 and held their biggest lead of the game. 

As redshirt sophomore Javian Davis of the Bulldogs was walking toward the bench, he exchanged some words with an official and was given a technical foul. 

Gilyard knocked down both free throws following the technical foul, and on the next Bulldogs offensive possession, redshirt senior Abdul Ado received his third foul with 15 minutes left. The coach pulled him out to sit on the Mississippi State bench for some time. The Spiders used the momentum from both these fouls to go on run and take the lead with a score of 46-44.

The two teams would trade baskets back and forth until the two-minute mark, when the Spiders managed to take a four-point lead 65-61. The Bulldogs would then tie it up at 65 with 50 seconds remaining. 

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With 39 seconds remaining, Gilyard hit a floater to take a two-point lead. In the following Mississippi State possession, Ado was fouled, and the referees gave him two free throws. He missed both free throws, which were the first misses of the whole game by the Bulldogs, as they were a perfect 16 for 16 up until that moment. With 7.8 seconds left, the Spiders were up 67-65, and junior Andre Gustavson headed to the free throw line for a one-and-one after being intentionally fouled.

After Gustavson missed the free throw, Mississippi State pushed the ball up court to redshirt sophomore D.J. Stewart Jr. who made a contested three point shot over junior Souleymane “Sal” Koureissi to put the Bulldogs ahead 68-67 with two seconds left, ultimately sealing the game.

“Stewart [Jr.] hit a big shot. Not many people are gonna make that shot,” Gilyard said after the game. “That’s a tough one to lose just because we had so many guys play well.”

With the loss, the Spiders' season, which had great potential to be one of the best in school history, comes to a disappointing close.

With five returning starters, all of whom were going into their final year and all of which are now 1,000 point scorers, the Spiders headed into the 2020-2021 season with a very loaded roster. Graduate student Nick Sherod unfortunately tore his ACL in the preseason, but his spot was filled by sophomore Tyler Burton, a young talent who some believe has the potential to be an all-time great for the program.

Several sports journalists were aware of what Mooney and the team had brewing, as they received 40 points in the Week 1 AP Poll and were picked as favorites to win the A-10. The team turned heads nationally on Nov. 29 when they upset then ranked No. 10 Kentucky at Rupp Arena. This resulted in the Spiders being ranked No. 19 in the AP Poll the next day Nov. 30.

After the win, the Spiders would undergo their first COVID-19 related pause of the season. They were forced to cancel games against Charleston and Furman, and they went a week without playing a game. They remained in the AP Top 25 for two weeks total before dropping out. One win they picked up during this time was against current No. 17 Loyola Chicago, who just recently upset No. 2 Illinois in the NCAA Tournament.

The Spiders then compiled a record of 9-3 before their second pause, which lasted from Jan. 12 to Jan. 20. This pause caused the team to cancel games against VCU and St. Bonaventure. It was after this pause that the team’s season really started to head downhill. 

After playing just two games against La Salle and Saint Joseph’s, the team was hit with their third pause on Jan. 31. This resulted in three crucial games being cancelled in the midst of conference play as March Madness slowly approached. Having these games cancelled late in the season would ultimately mean that if the Spiders wanted to secure a NCAA Tournament bid ,they would have to play close to perfect in the final stretch of the season. Unfortunately, the team did quite the opposite of that.

In their five games before the A-10 tournament, the team went 2-3, which included a home loss against one of the worst teams in the league, 3-14 Saint Joseph’s. In the A-10 tournament quarterfinals, the Spiders blew a seven-point halftime lead to Duquesne, destroying any chances the team had for a bid to the NCAA tournament.

Despite the fiasco that was the Spiders' 2020-2021 season, there still is some hope left to look forward to. 

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the NCAA has granted all winter sport athletes an extra year of eligibility. Given that the team has five great players who are in their last year with the team, they can decide to “run it back” for one final try in a season that won’t be as severely impacted by the pandemic.

The coaching staff is set to have a conversation with the group of players in their last year about their future this weekend, Mooney said. Gilyard himself said he plans to announce his decision on Sunday. 

When asked if he has some “unfinished business” at UR, Gilyard gave a brief yet intriguing response:

“Yeah, I do.”

Contact sports editor Krystian Hajduczka at krystian.hajduczka@richmond.edu.

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