Bates making a championship run in its first tournament appearance since '61
In early spring 1961, the Berlin Wall had yet to be built, no human being had left Earth’s atmosphere and the Bates College men’s basketball team qualified for the NCAA postseason.
They haven’t been back since, at least not until last weekend. The Bobcats traveled from Maine to Atlantic City, defeated St. Vincent and host Stockton and returned with a ticket to the third round.
“We didn’t have anything to lose,” said Jonathan Furbush, a 2005 Bates graduate, in his sixth year as head coach. Few (if any) outside Lewiston, Maine, predicted anything close to this kind of success, yet this Bates team finds itself vying to be the last NESCAC school standing when it meets Trinity (Conn.) on Friday.
This kind of result might surprise many, but the team was ready and prepared to win games this season. “We returned a lot of players, talented guys who gained good experience last season,” Furbush said. “If you’d told me before the season we’d end up here where we are, it wouldn’t’ve surprised me.”
The players exude the same confidence. Lead by senior point guard Graham Safford, who scored 30 and dished out 10 assists in the first round win against St. Vincent, this team stands at 21-6 and finished tied for second in the NESCAC, which hadn’t won more than 14 games in seven years.
“We lost a lot of close games last year,” said Safford. “I think the moment was too big for us sometimes. This year no moment’s been too big. We’ve answered all the adversity we’ve encountered. People say we’re overachieving, which is fine because it just means we’re doing something right.”
That something included a very difficult non-conference schedule -- six teams who won their conference and three of the other 15 squads remaining in the NCAA Tournament, every one of those games on the road. “Strength of schedule is about getting lucky,” says Furbush, “We tried to schedule teams who did well last year with lots of talent returning, but you never know how good they’ll be.”
They were good. That gauntlet of a schedule proved important to withstanding the talent and pressure the Bobcats faced in the first weekend of NCAA play. St. Vincent presented a quick lineup with length and toughness. Bates had a double-digit lead for much of the game, but the Bearcats made them work until the very last minute.
The last time Bates was in the NCAA Tournament, there were two divisions, not three. The College Division tournament was the forerunner of today's Division II tourney.
Saturday brought a hostile crowd and a hard-nosed, determined Stockton squad. Bates jumped out to an early 12-point lead, pushing it as high as 16 before the Ospreys began reeling them in. The Bobcats really struggled in the second half, shooting only 25 percent to Stockton’s 52 percent.
“The only time I get anxious is when we’re up 20," noted Furbush. " We won a lot of close games this year and with Graham running the show I have confidence some shots would fall.”
In the end, though, it was strategy that saved the game for Bates. After missing several shots and a scary late turnover, Stockton All-American Josh Blamon had the ball with the score tied and six seconds remaining. Furbush drew up a play, capitalizing on Bates’ one foul to give. “If he brought the ball up quickly we weren’t going to foul and risk free throws because that guy can hit from anywhere, but when he stayed in the backcourt for a while we went for the foul.”
Safford blocked Stockton’s shot attempt at the buzzer and took over in OT, notching seven of Bates’ 13 points in the extra period and sending his team back to New England for a week of celebration and preparation.
The season was one of ups and downs for the Bobcats. A blowout loss to in-state and conference rival Bowdoin late in the year -- which drew the assessment from Furbush: “I think Bowdoin would have beaten the Celtics that night" -- and a disappointing NESCAC quarterfinal ouster to Wesleyan left many wondering about Bates’ fitness for the tournament.
“The time off ended up being very helpful,” Furbush said. “We had almost two weeks between our quarterfinal loss and the first [NCAA tournament] game. It gave us a chance to rest and recuperate and prepare. It was almost like starting over.”
The break gave new life to the team, especially sophomore forwards Malcolm and Marcus Delpeche, who’d together been averaging just seven rebounds per game in the last two weeks of the season. The twins combined for 41 rebounds over the two games at Stockton, scored 42 points, and dominated the paint.
Now Bates carries a bit of swagger into the weekend rematch with Trinity. “I’m actually really looking forward to seeing those guys again,” said Safford, “They beat us earlier. It wasn’t our best game, probably wasn’t their best game either. I’m excited to get another chance against them.” Expect a bruising game -- the first matchup featured 42 fouls -- and a lot of emotions with conference pride on the line.
If Safford’s team succeeds in avenging its loss, they’ll face the winner of Babson and Johns Hopkins on Saturday. Bates was one of only two teams to defeat the Beavers this season, but Furbush is not taking anything for granted.
“We are not looking past Trinity. Of all the teams I’ve seen, they guard better than anyone. If we do get to Saturday, we’ll be ready to play whoever it is on Saturday, but we’re not looking that far just yet.”