Deja vu for Williams in Salem
Second consecutive year Ephs see big lead slip away
SALEM, Va. -- Troy Whittington fell to the floor of the Salem Civic Center in disbelief, his sweat-soaked Williams College jersey draped over his head and the dream of an NCAA Division III national championship shattered into a million pieces.
For the second straight year, the Ephs let a comfortable lead slip away at the Final Four.
Last year, it happened in the title game against Wisconsin-Stevens Point as a 10-point advantage evaporated in the final 11 minutes of action.
This time, a 17-point cushion with a little under nine minutes to go disappeared as Wooster made a furious rally to stun the Ephs 73-71 in a heart-stopping and exhausting national semifinal.
Whittington laid on the court for a minute or two. He entered the post-game press conference with an ice bag on his wrist, which may have helped ease that pain but did nothing to soften the blow of falling short at this point in the season.
“It stinks,” Whittington said. “But at the same time, it’s amazing what we have done. We’ve been to the Final Four twice and have won a lot of games. We’re proud of what we have done, but obviously we would have liked to keep playing.”
Whittington is one of the top DIII players in the country. He’s the type of player that can change a game plan and he creates an intimidating presence in the paint.
The 6-foot-6 senior center stood in the post against the Fighting Scots (31-2) Friday night and dared them to drive into the lane and take a short jumper or go all the way to the hoop for a layup.
Wooster standout Ian Franks rolled the dice once early in the first half against Whittington. It turned out to be a bad idea. His shot was blocked and the ball bounced toward the sideline after the rejection.
He also scored 12 points, grabbed eight rebounds and dished out three assists. His tremendous effort helped the Ephs (29-3) jump in front 42-28 at halftime.
“We felt like we were in a rhythm offensively. My teammates were doing a good job of getting me the ball and we were knocking down shots from the outside. Things were going well.”
It all changed in the second half. Williams had a tougher time getting the ball inside to Whittington and the 3-point shots weren’t going through the net either. Wooster senior forward/center Bryan Wickliffe had a lot to do with the troubles Whittington dealt with in the final 20 minutes of play.
He was draped all over Whittington and worked tirelessly to make sure he didn‘t get a chance to make a move toward the basket.
Guarding someone as good as Whittington isn’t easy, but in the end, Wickliffe found a way to get the job done.
“(Troy) is a heck of a player,” Wickliffe said. “He is athletic, long and has great skill. We talked before the game about how hard we were going to have to work against him. We made him take a lot of tough shots.”
Yet, there was still a chance for Whittington to make a play at the end. He got the ball underneath with just seconds remaining but never got a shot off as the ball was knocked out of his hands and rolled out of bounds. Taylor Epley then attempted to make a layup before time expired but the rolled off the rim.
“No one play lost that game,” Williams head coach Mike Maker said. “We had our chances. I’m disappointed we lost but I am proud of this team. Our guys played hard today. But give Wooster credit. They are a tough, well-coached basketball team.”
It wasn’t as if the Ephs played horrible basketball. They shot 52.4 percent from the field and four players in double figures en route to building a 63-46 advantage with under nine minutes remaining in the game.
Williams also displayed a balanced offensive attack. Nate Robertson led the charge with 21 points and James Wang scored 14. James Klemm added 11 points.
The problem for the Ephs was turnovers. They had 16 for the game, including 10 in the second half. It was one of the reasons why Williams couldn’t slow down the momentum of the Fighting Scots.
“It’s a game of runs and I felt like we turned the ball over too much,” Maker said. “We gave them too many extra possessions. We have a very talented team and have found a lot of different ways to win games this year. Today, we didn’t make the plays we needed to win this game.”
Well after the game had ended, Williams walked out of the media room with his arm around Wang. They had leaned on each other all season, and even in defeat, they stuck together the way good teammates do.
Wang will have one more chance to play as he is only a junior. But for Whittington, this was the end of the road.
“It’s been amazing,” Whittington said. “I’ve had the opportunity to play in two Final Fours, which is something most people don’t get to do, and I’ve grown as a person and player. I’d rather be in the Williams locker room with a loss than in the Wooster locker room with a win. It’s been a great experience.”