Eight times in its star-crossed history, William & Mary has come within one win of escaping ignominy.
Never has falling short been this painful.
Having surged to a six-point lead with 80 seconds remaining in Monday night's CAA championship game, William & Mary appeared to be in position to secure its first NCAA bid in program history. Instead the Tribe surrendered the final seven points of the game to top-seeded Delaware and suffered a heartbreaking 75-74 loss that had to leave their fans wondering if they'll live to see William & Mary in an NCAA tournament game.
Devon Saddler attacked the rim and sank a pair of free throws to trim the lead to four with 1:10 remaining. Jarvis Threatt drove around a top-of-the-key screen, drew contact and made the layup and the free throw to make it a one-point game with 51.3 seconds left. And with William & Mary focused on taking away dribble penetration from the high-scoring Delaware guards, big man Carl Baptiste shook free for the game-winning layup with 13 seconds to play.
Delaware's comeback secured the Blue Hens' first NCAA bid since 1999 and ensured William & Mary would remain among the "Forgotten Five." The Tribe joins Northwestern, St. Francis (NY), Army and the Citadel as programs that have been in Division I since the NCAA tournament's inception in 1947 but have never earned a bid.
"It's tough," William & Mary coach Tony Shaver said late Monday night. "The locker room was completely down. At some point they'll realized what they accomplished this year, but there wasn't a dry eye in there, as you'd expect. They're very crushed."
Nobody was more crushed than William & Mary star Marcus Thornton because he was the one who had the chance to attempt the game's final shot.
Thornton didn't use a high ball screen set by senior Tim Rusthoven, then was left with no other choice but to attack off the dribble and pull up for a long jump shot. The 18 footer caromed hard off the back rim, triggering a flood of joyous Delaware fans and sending Thornton face down to the floor in disgust.
"We got a great shot for Marcus Thornton that just didn't go in," Shaver said. "I don't know that we'd do anything differently. We put it in his hands for a reason. I thought he had a great shot. Looked good when it left his hands, looked good in flight, just hit the back of the rim."
There's no one reason why William & Mary hasn't reached the NCAA tournament in its history. There are a handful of factors that have played a role.
Its academic standards have reduced the pool of prospects it can recruit compared to rival schools. Its administration hasn't always invested the same amount of resources into the program as conference foes. And some of its best seasons have come at a time when its league had other powerhouses, from Jerry West's West Virginia teams in the late 50s to VCU, Old Dominion and George Mason more recently, prior to their departure from the CAA.
It's a testament to the job Shaver has done that he has overcome many of those obstacles to get William & Mary to the CAA title game three times in the past seven years. The program had only reached the finals of its league tournament five times in history before Shaver.
What's nearly as frustrating as falling short of an NCAA bid for Shaver is that others perceive the standard for success and failure at William & Mary on a binary scale. One if the Tribe ends their NCAA tournament drought. Zero if they fall short yet again.
Shaver understands how much an NCAA bid would mean to his school after 11 seasons, but he feels that standard undersells what his team accomplished. The Tribe won 20 games, upset Towson in the CAA semis and fell by one to a potent Delaware team that won all but two league games and swept William & Mary in the regular season.
"The thing I get angry about is people trying to define whether or not you made the NCAA tournament as whether you had a good year," Shaver said. "If our goal is to get into the NCAA tournament, we can move into a conference that has the same academic restrictions we have. We choose to play at a higher level. I think that's admirable to be honest. We're not going to let the NCAA tournament define our team, to be honest."
If there's any silver lining to Monday's heartache, it's that William & Mary is poised to contend again next season.
Whereas Towson graduates league player of the year Jerelle Benimon and Delaware loses Baptiste, Davon Usher and Saddler, William & Mary returns Thornton and standout freshman Omar Prewitt.
"We had a great year this year, and the future is very bright," Shaver said.
At some point, William & Mary supporters may recognize that. For now, it's hard to see the big picture through the disappointment of an opportunity lost.