The University of Richmond Spiders were six minutes and eight points away from another possibly disappointing end to the men’s basketball season in their Thursday night contest against the University of Rhode Island. Four days and four gripping games later, the Spiders are champions, dancing their way to the NCAA tournament. For UR, this March has started with extra madness.
Even after the comeback victory during the second round of the A-10 Conference championship, the school’s next tournament berth seemed much further away than Sunday. The University of Rhode Island was the 11th seed. UR’s next opponent was the second seed Virginia Commonwealth University Rams, a team that took two wins over the Spiders this year and has won 22 out of their 29 previous matchups. And yet, after the fourth minute of the second quarter, the Spiders took the lead and never gave it up.
Madness has reigned since. With two late comebacks to beat the University of Dayton Flyers Saturday and the 64-62 victory over the top-seeded Davidson College Wildcats Sunday, UR conquered three teams that had given the Spiders four out of their 12 losses. From the ashes of a maligned season that started with high expectations, UR is right where it wanted to be: atop the A-10.
“The three close games we had built up to today,” sixth-year student Grant Golden said in the post-championship press conference. “We had already played in three close games this week; they hadn’t played in any. So, we felt like if we kept it close, we could pull it out in the end.”
Next to him, with a smattering of A-10 trophies between the two players on the press conference table, sixth-year student Jacob Gilyard echoed those sentiments of his “brother.”
“When we decided to come back, we knew we had unfinished business, and that was the motto for the whole year,” Gilyard said. “Obviously, it hasn’t been glitter and rainbows throughout the years, but to get to the big dance is the ultimate goal.”
For Gilyard, Golden and the rest of the team, the A-10 title means more than just conference supremacy. As is tradition, Division I conference titles grant access to the NCAA 68-team tournament for the national title. There is no bigger stage in college basketball.
UR is the 12th seed in the tournament and will face the fifth seed University of Iowa Hawkeyes this Thursday in Buffalo, New York. The Hawkeyes are the champions of the BIG-10 Conference Conference, which sent a total of nine teams to the tournament. The A-10 has two: Davidson and Richmond, once again.
“I don’t think anybody from the outside looking in truly understands what this group has gone through,” Golden said of his six-year journey to this title. “If you haven’t been in the locker room and you haven’t been here the last couple years and been through the ups and the downs — and certainly there have been lots of downs — you truly don’t know how this feels.”
When UR tips off at 3:10 p.m. on Thursday, the Spiders will culminate a long road to the tournament that has seen, as Golden pointed out, dramatic changes in fortunes. None more so than the COVID-19 pandemic and the effect on the 2020 season.
That year, UR had been an A-10 powerhouse. With the best regular-season record in school history and a favorable forecast for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, UR was in the driver's seat before the A-10 tournament had even started. With an experienced, balanced team and a high-powered offense, rumblings of a recreation of the famed 2011 ‘Sweet 16’ run were not far from UR’s mind.
Alas, like everything else in the world, March 2020 ended the team’s season without a chance for a grand conclusion.
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“Two years ago, we would have been in,” UR’s head coach Chris Mooney told reporters after the two players shuffled off the podium. ”That’s one of my most vivid memories, telling the guys in the Brooklyn hotel the tournament was canceled having put ourselves in a position to go into the NCAA [tournament].”
Mooney, who has been the coach of the men’s basketball team for the past 17 seasons, has been the subject of increasing pressure from UR’s fan base. The criticism has grown to the point where “fire Mooney” chants can be heard from the student section during tough moments on the court and an online petition is circulating calling for his removal. While the petition has received 272 signatures, the sentiments of frustration have grown. With multi-million-dollar renovations to the arena and practice facility over the past few years and the highest base salary of any UR employee, according to ProPublica, results like the A-10 championship and tournament bids are essential to the fans. While this season was certainly the last for the group of ‘super-seniors,’ if the team had lost to Rhode Island Thursday, it would have only increased the pressure and disappointment that had been building all season.
Nonetheless, UR has made it back to the NCAA tournament for the third time in Mooney’s tenure. What is more, the last time UR came into the tournament off a three-win run at the A-10 title, they found themselves in the Sweet 16 in 2011. Even with Iowa holding the higher seed, historically, 35% of 12 seeds have beaten five seeds since the field expanded in 1985. For context, 11 seeds (teams that are theoretically better than 12 seeds) have only a 2% higher win percentage over 6 seeds (teams that are theoretically worse than 5 seeds).
Sometimes in March, it pays to be the underdog.
Tune in at 3:10 EDST Thursday on TRUTV to catch the Spiders playing Iowa, with a chance to advance to the round of 32 Saturday.
Contact copy editor Logan Jones-Wilkins at email@example.com.
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