Downtown Baltimore buzzed Monday evening, and while some extra sunlight and 60-degree temperatures certainly improved moods, the masses dressed in blue-and-gold and green-and-gold had something else to smile about.
One crowd—the blue from the University of Delaware or the green from the College of William & Mary—would see their men’s basketball team at Baltimore Arena crowned Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) champions and earn an automatic berth in next week’s NCAA Tournament.
Something had to give. Either Delaware, which hadn’t won its conference or been to the Big Dance since 1999, or William & Mary, which had never made the NCAA Tournament in its more than 60 years of playing Division-I hoops, would celebrate.
Before the tip, Pratt Street restaurants and bars were filled with Delaware and William & Mary students, alumni, and other supporters, all of the fans erupting at the sight of their schools and the game preview on ESPN. The cheering and clapping carried up Hopkins Place to the arena, where inside, the sounds of dueling pep bands and cheerleading squads took over. The large CAA logo adorned center court, and flags of the league’s nine schools hung behind both baskets.
More than 5,000 people packed the arena’s low-level seats, blue on one end, green on the other. Students crammed behind the baskets, shaking various signs and posters (the Delaware kids held a huge cutout of Vice President Joe Biden’s face, while William & Mary’s brought one of Thomas Jefferson). The mascots—Delaware’s Blue Hen and William & Mary’s Griffin—roamed the sidelines and riled up fans young and old. NBC Sports Network was broadcasting courtside, camera crews trying to catch every moment.
Both teams were playing their third game in three days, but the adrenaline was pumping early on. In the game’s first four minutes, the teams combined to make 10 shots and score 23 points. One early sequence went: William & Mary layup, Delaware layup, William & Mary three, Delaware dunk, William & Mary three. Both teams were clicking, but everyone, fans included, needed that first timeout to catch their breath.
Delaware led 39-33 at halftime and pushed its lead to 12 with about 16 minutes to play. The Blue Hen faithful sensed a championship was close—but William & Mary freshman Omar Prewitt thought otherwise.
With his team trailing 47-37, Prewitt stripped the ball from a Delaware player and headed the other way, slipping past one Blue Hen with a behind-the-back dribble and barreling down the lane. Two more Delaware defenders approached; Prewitt lifted off, and he kept rising.
Prewitt jammed the ball with one hand on top of a Delaware player, shocking and igniting the Baltimore Arena crowd, bringing everyone in the building to their feet.
With Prewitt (14 points) and junior Marcus Thornton (22 points) leading the way, William & Mary climbed all the way back. They looked to be in control when Prewitt swished a left-wing three to push his team’s lead to 74-68 and force a Delaware timeout with 1:21 left.
But Delaware quickly responded with two free throws, and after Prewitt missed the front-end of a 1-and-1, Delaware’s Jarvis Threat (18 points) drove the lane, got fouled, and threw in a difficult layup. He added a free throw, and all of sudden, William & Mary’s lead was 74-73 with 51 seconds left.
After a Thornton miss, Delaware grabbed the rebound and called timeout with just 25 seconds on the clock. Delaware fans, though their team trailed, led the cheers; the William & Mary crowd could only anxiously stare at the scoreboard.
On the Delaware inbound, the Blue Hens found the 6-foot-9, 260-pound Carl Baptiste near the rim. The senior center, who was a force all game, dropped in the final two of his career-high 24 points, giving his team the lead and sending Delaware fans into hysterics. Ten seconds left, William & Mary timeout.
CAA and arena officials quickly prepared for a celebration. As security guards gathered near the court to make sure students and fans stayed safe, CAA staff brought out the championship trophy, championship shirts and hats, and a ladder for the winning team to cut down the nets.
With both schools’ students inching toward the court, William & Mary inbounded to Thornton, who quickly moved up the floor. Delaware double-teamed, and with time running out, Thornton had to get a shot up.
The William & Mary guard gathered himself, rocked to his right, and launched a 17-foot jumper from the right wing with three seconds left. The shot looked good on the release, but the ball hit the back of the rim and bounced away.
The buzzer sounded. Final score: Delaware 75, William & Mary 74.
The Delaware bench sprinted to meet their teammates at center court, and a blue-and-gold mass spilled onto the floor. The pep band rocked.
Euphoria on one end; heartbreak on the other.
It took all 40 minutes of the CAA Championship in Baltimore, but the Blue Hens and their fans were finally dancing again. For William & Mary, the wait for an NCAA Tournament date lasts at least another year.
Welcome to March Madness.
Andrew Cannarsa has been writing professionally for almost 10 years, first as a crime and safety reporter at a community daily newspaper outside Philadelphia, and then as a business reporter at Baltimore Examiner. He graduated with a journalism degree from Boston University in 2005. Follow him on Twitter @cannarsa.