By Jeff Hartsell (Contact)
The Post and Courier
Tuesday, March 11, 2008
Their ownership of the Southern Conference secure, Davidson's Wildcats are planning to broaden their horizons.
Fresh off a 65-49 victory over seventh-seeded Elon in the SoCon Tournament championship game Monday night at the North Charleston Coliseum, top-seeded Davidson is determined to do more than win a third straight SoCon title.
They are after something no Davidson team has accomplished since Lefty Driesell was the Wildcats' basketball coach — a victory, or two, or three — in the NCAA Tournament.
"We've got all the necessary ingredients for it," said tournament MVP Stephen Curry, who scored 23 points as Davidson clinched a third straight automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
"We have senior leadership, we have playmakers and a great defense. We've just got to keep this momentum going when we get into the NCAA Tournament."
The 23rd-ranked Wildcats, who are 26-6 and own the nation's longest win streak at 22 straight, may find themselves in position to do just that, if projected seeds for the NCAA Tournament can be believed. Projections on Monday ranged from as high as a No. 7 seed (by ESPN's bracketologist) to a No. 12 or 13 seed.
Coach Bob McKillop, who celebrated his fifth SoCon Tournament title in 19 years at Davidson, obviously hopes to land on the high end of that scale when the brackets are announced next Sunday.
His teams have been seeded 13th, 14th and 15th in their last four trips to the Big Dance, resulting in first-round losses to Michigan in 1998, Ohio State in 2002 and '06, and to Maryland last season.
"I clearly believe that we have demonstrated a lot in terms of seeding," said McKillop, whose team lost to Top 10 teams North Carolina (72-68), Duke (79-73) and UCLA (75-63) early this season. "We went 20-0 in conference play, no one did that. And the NCAA committee has said it's who you play, where you play and how you play — not that you win.
"And we did a pretty good job of playing North Carolina on a neutral site where there were 12,000 Carolina fans and four of ours. We played three of the top 10 teams in the country pretty well."
Elon coach Ernie Nestor, is a believer.
"They are a very confident basketball team," said Nestor. "I think they can advance to the round of 16."
The Wildcats showed that Monday as they fought off the gritty Phoenix, the lowest seed to play for a SoCon title since No. 7 VMI in 1988. Rugged senior Thomas Sander scored 11 points and forward Andrew Lovedale added 10 for Davidson.
Sophomore forward T.J. Douglass hit 6 of 10 from 3-point range for 18 points to lead Elon (14-19), and sophomore Brett James added 13 points.
After Davidson made easy work of Wofford and UNC Greensboro — the Wildcats won the first two games by a combined 63 points, and set tourney records for fewest points allowed (150) and field goals allowed (51) — unlikely finalist Elon put on a much better show for 4,181 fans at the Coliseum, and a national TV audience.
Elon ended its remarkable tournament run with a reputation as Davidson's toughest foe in the SoCon this season. Nestor's squad lost to Davidson by margins of two and 10 points during the season, and was the only team in the tournament to give the Wildcats any run at all.
"Davidson is the measuring stick of our conference," Nestor said. "We know what we have to go to get to that level, because if we can play with Davidson, we can play with anybody."
The fresher Wildcats, who enjoyed a first-round bye on Friday, pulled away from Elon with a 15-6 run to start the second half. Curry hit a long trey and two free throws, and Davidson went up by 17 at 45-28 with 13:28 left.
But Elon, playing its fourth game in four days, would not go quietly. Douglass' fourth 3-pointer keyed a 9-0 run that cut Davidson's lead to 45-39 with 8:40 left, and forced McKillop to call a timeout.
"We were in the center ring, slugging away, and they were, too," McKillop said. "We had them on the ropes a couple of times, but we couldn't knock them out. They are a tough team to knock out."
Curry calmly swished another 3-point bomb to push the lead back to 10, but James hit a turnaround jumper and Douglass his fifth 3-pointer to pull Elon to within 51-46 with 4:22 left.
A quick 7-0 run for Davidson sealed it, and point guard Jason Richards — who had only four points, but 11 assists — was the key. He drove the lane as the shot clock ran down and dished to Andrew Lovedale for a bucket, then whipped a pass to Bryant Barr in the corner. His 3-pointer made it 58-46 with 2:23 left, setting off a frenzy — and a chorus of "Sweet Caroline" — among Davidson fans.
Perhaps they'll get to sing it again two or three more times in March.