SALEM, Va — Ten points. That was the lead Williams College had in the second half of the NCAA Division III national championship game against Wisconsin-Stevens Point a year ago.
Eleven minutes. That was how much time was left in the game, the Ephs so close to a title they could almost reach out and grab the trophy.
Dreams die hard sometimes, and for Williams, the end of its dream felt like a punch in the gut. The Ephs were blitzed by a 22-5 run late in the second half and walked off the floor of the Salem Civic Center with a 78-73 loss hanging over their heads.
“It was extremely tough to lose that game,” senior center Troy Whittington said. “To know we had a chance to win the title and end up watching another team celebrate gave us the drive to give ourselves a chance to win it all this year.”
Williams (29-2) will get another shot at glory. The No. 4 Ephs take on No. 5 Wooster (30-2) today in the first national semifinal, the winner moving on to face either No. 2 Middlebury (28-1) or No. 8 St. Thomas (Minn.) (28-3) in the national final on Saturday afternoon.
But this trip back to Salem isn’t about redemption. The Ephs have a decidedly different look this year after losing seven players to graduation, including co-national player of the year Blake Schultz.
“It took a long time for us to get over that loss,” junior guard James Wang said. “But we are not out for redemption. This season has a different feel to it and we have taken a different road to get here.”
Williams head coach Mike Maker agrees with the statement. As for the way things ended for his basketball team last season, Maker isn’t as disappointed as one might think for a coach who watched his team fall short of bringing home the program’s second national title.
“I’m actually at peace with the loss,” Maker said. “We played as well as we could have played in that game and I was proud of team for the effort they gave. Don’t get me wrong. It was tough to lose, but we know we played hard. That is all you can ask for as a coach.”
It would be tough to argue with Maker. There was no question the Ephs left every ounce of effort they had on the floor against the Pointers in a thrilling championship game.
They shot nearly 50 percent (49.1) from the field and four players scored in double figures. Schultz was phenomenal, scoring 20 points, grabbing six rebounds and dishing out two assists. Whittington pumped in 19 points and pulled down 11 rebounds.
Wang added 17 points, but Stevens Point matched the intensity and effort of the Ephs, and in the end, it played a little bit better to wrap its hands around a national championship trophy.
“Eleven minutes is a long time in basketball and we ended up losing to a very good team,” Maker said. “We hoped that we could get back this year, but we knew that it was going to be very tough. We not only had to overcome losing great players, but we also had to have everything fall into place.”
It doesn’t hurt that Williams has been through a deep tournament run before. The interesting thing is that Wang doesn’t believe the experience gives the Ephs an edge in their quest to be crowned champions.
“I don’t think it makes a difference,” Wang said. “Every team has good players and every team is here for a reason. We respect every team here and we know we have a lot of work to do if we want to win it all.”
Still, Whittington that has never forgotten what it felt like to leave town without a trophy last season. And with this being his last chance to experience the thrill of reaching the mountain top of DIII basketball, Whittington is determined to capitalize on the opportunity in front of him.
“There has been a fire burning inside of me all year,” Whittington said. “We are glad we get another shot and we know we will all come out and play hard. I’m motivated to play my best. I definitely don’t want to come home empty-handed again.”