SALEM, Va. — For all of the serendipitous turns accompanying Cabrini’s first trip to the national semifinals — among them Marcus Kahn’s victories on the recruiting trail — who would have expected its X-factor to be discovered during an open gym this past summer?
“I would love to say it was genius recruiting,” the fourth-year head coach said. “But it was more luck than anything.”
Serendipity might be the best and only way to explain how Cabrini came across Aaron Walton-Moss, the freshman sixth man who stands just 6-foot-1 and is averaging nearly a double-double in the last 17 games since becoming eligible midseason. And how the 21-year-old rediscovered his game two-plus years removed from his glory days across the Delaware River at Camden (N.J.) High School.
Coaxed by friend and fellow Camden native Jason Thompson, an NBA lottery pick currently playing for the Sacramento Kings, Walton-Moss made the trip across the Delaware for a pick-up game at Cabrini this past summer.
Essentially, opportunity and good fortune converged while Kahn worked in his office. Walton-Moss wanted a chance to play college ball. Cabrini needed additional depth after its 2011 bracket was busted in the round of 16.
Enter Thompson, who tipped off Kahn, who subsequently spoke with Walton-Moss. Months later, Cabrini brings one of the most unlikely success stories of March Madness to Salem, Va., for the national semifinals Friday night against Illinois Wesleyan.
“I’m really thankful that Coach Kahn took a chance on me and allowed me to come here and play,” Walton-Moss said.
If not for a subpar transcript, Walton-Moss might have been playing on a bigger stage this month. He averaged a double-double and earned second team all-state honors as a senior in 2009, but played only 18 games in his freshman and sophomore seasons, preventing his three top suitors – LaSalle, Temple, and UTEP – from giving him a free ride.
“They couldn’t offer me anything,” he said.
And then, his girlfriend gave birth to their first daughter, Ariyiania, on June 29, 2010. Instead of chasing his degree and his hoop dreams, he worked at Walmart and for the Camden Bureau of Recreation to help support his daughter.
During those days, Walton-Moss admitted, “School wasn’t really on my mind. I was still a player, but school wasn’t going anywhere.”
Eventually, he enrolled at Harcum, a community college in Bryn Mawr, Pa., for the Spring 2011 semester. But the open gym at Cabrini changed his course — and the Cavaliers’ too.
After an early adjustment to the college game, the thickly built Walton-Moss (11.7 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 61.6 field-goal percentage) has emerged as the shortest double-double threat in the bracket. He has produced five consecutive, starting with the Colonial States Athletic Conference title-game triumph against Keystone (18 points, 18 boards) and recorded his latest (17 tallies, 10 rebounds) when the Cavaliers eliminated Scranton from the NCAA tournament.
Walton-Moss’ emergence not only diverted attention from all-everything point guard Cory Lemons (17.7 ppg, 6.5 apg, 6.2 rpg), but also created additional scoring opportunities for veterans Jeremy Knowles (12.6 ppg), John Boyd (10.9 ppg), Fran Rafferty (9.7 ppg) and AJ Williams (9.3 ppg).
“I think we’re deeper this year,” Lemons said. “Last year, we could go six or seven deep. This year, we could eight or nine if we get in foul trouble.”
In the second round against Hobart, Kahn recalled Walton-Moss skying above a pair of 6-7 opponents for a rebound. He then scored all six of Cabrini’s points in overtime, including three free throws in the final 13 seconds, to cap a 22-point performance that helped the Cavaliers survive by a 90-88 count.
“After every game, we all just say, ‘Wow!’ ” Kahn said.
More than just the wow factor, Walton-Moss has emerged as the X-factor for a Cabrini’s first national semifinal trip, delivering the Cavaliers to Salem four years after Kahn took control in suburban Philadelphia despite never playing a reserve role in his basketball career.
“I told them I’ll do anything to win,” Walton-Moss said. “I just want to win.”
From a summer open gym, Walton-Moss and Cabrini are two wins from a national championship. A serendipitous trip for the Cavaliers and their sixth man.