Big dreams fuel CSI's big run
|Having found Division I was
not for him, perhaps T.J. Tibbs has found his true joy at Staten
Staten Island athletics photo
From a fruitless attempt to make the varsity at Division I Monmouth University, to two basketball-free years competing in track at Wagner, T.J. Tibbs found himself facing a crossroad three seasons removed from his glory days at Curtis High School near his Staten Island, N.Y., home.
Ultimately, the clarity he discovered during a year away from college provided two of the surprise storylines heading into the 2012 Sweet 16, the first time the Dolphins have ever reached the third round of Division III's March Madness:
The College of Staten Island is still playing on the Division III NCAA Tournament’s second weekend, representing a City University of New York Athletic Conference that had not seen one of its teams go this deep into a bracket since 1998.
And Tibbs, now a 24-year-old senior playing in his 10th and final semester of eligibility, is leading the way.
Although Staten Island's senior still dreams big – how many Division III juniors do you know of that declared for the NBA draft last spring? – he still remembers the three years that nearly derailed his hoop dreams before rediscovering himself while working the after-school program at his high school alma mater.
“I needed to use that year to just figure out if I was go to play basketball again, if I was going to go to school,” Tibbs said. “The year off was more about me get my mind right and see what I want to do.”
Perhaps Tibbs, and ultimately the Dolphins, could have discovered the Sweet 16 sooner if Tibbs took this route out of high school. But that would have denied us one of the country's richest storylines entering this weekend, with Staten Island taking a 26-4 record and a 19-game victory run into this Friday night's tip-off against No. 3 MIT at No. 9 Franklin & Marshall.
Coming out of Curtis, Tibbs had tunnel vision when it came to Division I. And so, without a scholarship offer, he walked on at Monmouth but left after one year for what he called “non-basketball reasons.” Following two seasons at Wagner, where he only opted to run track, the senior said somewhat wistfully, “I kind of gave up on the game a little bit.”
Longtime coach Tony Petosa hoped Tibbs would join him at Staten Island's Division III school, leaving open a door the star guard never walked through until the fall of 2010. The next step in a journey that transformed the futures of young man and his hometown program.
Last weekend, during a 77-67, second-round victory over Rhode Island, Petosa called a timeout. He proposed adding an additional ballhandler; an assistant coach opposed. As the coaches approached the players, Tibbs told his coach he agreed – and it ultimately helped the Dolphins continue their unprecedented run.
“I said, 'Well coach, it's 2-1,'” Petosa said. “Tommy was 100 percent right on the call.”
Perhaps the only call anyone questioned where the Staten Island point guard is concerned: his decision to declare for the 2011 NBA draft. Although, in an unexpected way, it showed the on- and off-court smarts Petosa raved about when talking to the San Antonio Spurs, comparing his 5-8 point guard to a less physical version of All-Star Tony Parker.
“I never thought I was going to get drafted or anything,” Tibbs said. “From communications classes, I knew that any publicity was good publicity. People started picking up about our program because we were flying under the radar.”
Neither Tibbs (15.9 ppg, 6.1 apg) nor Staten Island are flying under the radar any longer. Not with school records for longest win streak, most victories in a season and deepest run into the NCAA Tournament established this winter. And not with potentially more to come, although the Dolphins are playing in a regional along with three Top 10 opponents established as national powers.
From his crossroads, Tibbs and Staten Island have traveled an unprecedented path into the Sweet 16, a young man having found his way while helping a program do the same.
“I wouldn't be getting anything, maybe not my college degree, if I wasn't playing basketball,” Tibbs said. “Basketball is the love of my life.”
A big win, then a surprising departure
Hours after recording the most improbable comeback over the first two rounds of the 2012 tournament, the King's women suffered an unexpected loss when senior forward and leading scorer Paige Carlin chose spring break in Cancun over the Sweet 16 in Amherst, Mass.
According to citizensvoice.com, Carlin hopped a plane south of the border Sunday, prompting head coach Brian Donoghue to remove her from the Lady Monarchs' roster days before their Sweet 16 matchup with Emmanuel.
“We're not letting it be a distraction,” Donoghue told citizensvoice.com. “We'll be fine.”
Even without Carlin's team-best 11.4 points per game while serving as the Lady Monarchs' first player off the bench, the squad's contributions have been spread out across this breakthrough season. Especially during their unlikely 64-63 victory over William Paterson in last Saturday's second round; four different players scored during a decisive 11-0 surge over the final 2:28.
“I was not surprised we won. I was surprised with the matter in which we won,” said Donoghue, whose program will play in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2003 – the last time it appeared in a national tournament bracket.
“No one in the building saw that coming be down 10 with 2½ minutes left. That's college basketball in March.”
Improbably, the William Paterson missed its final four shots, turned the ball over twice and missed the front end of a one-and-one across the final two-plus minutes.
Meanwhile, junior Celia Rader – a starter last year who now comes off the bench – buried the last of her school-record and Division III NCAA Tournament record-tying nine three-pointers to spark the King's rally. Over the next two possessions, Molly Dahl and Lindsay Atchinson connected from beyond the arc, pulling the Lady Monarchs within 63-61 with 1:05 left.
After the Pioneers missed the front end of a one-and-one, Kaitlin Michaels made the most of a one-on-one matchup, converting the game-winning lay-up that ultimately ensured King's would board a bus for Amherst and the Sweet 16.
Entering this season, Donoghue thought his team's maturity could deliver a moment like last Saturday, admitting that “We felt like this was building for a couple of years.” It took Rader (9.8 ppg) buying into a reserve role in which she would still play significant minutes, not to mention inspired play from seniors Samantha Simcox (10.8 ppg, 7.6 rpg) and Michaels (10.2 ppg, 5.2 apg, 5.1 rpg).
Underdog taking Centre stage
|Maggie Prewitt helped Centre
make a surprising run to the Sweet 16.
Centre athletics photo by Chris Floyd
Despite a 12-point deficit heading into halftime against perennial national championship contender Washington University last Saturday, Chelsea Benham and her Centre teammates were unfazed. Turns out the 22nd-ranked Colonels pride themselves on their ability to rally.
“We are a second-half team,” the junior forward said. “Sometimes that's a bad thing, but I can't tell you how many games we've been down at halftime.
“When we were down by 12, no one came in the locker room with their heads down. We thought, 'We could do this.'”
And they did: Benham buried two free throws with 14.1 seconds left before two white-knuckle defensive stops delivered Centre back to the Sweet 16 courtesy of a 57-55, second-round victory over No. 9 Wash U. last Saturday on their home floor.
A victory that was all the more impressive considering none of the Colonels' eight seniors had ever experienced March Madness prior to this run through the brackets. Not to mention that they scored just 20 first-half points and shot just 29.7% from the floor against the 2011 national finalist.
"This team, whether we like it or not, it's been their forte all year to be down at halftime and find a way to make adjustments and finish in the second half," head coach Wendie Austin-Robinson said after the game. "More than usual, I was a little nervous because this was a great team with a lot of tradition that understands how to play in the tournament. I didn't like our toughness in the first half and the beginning of the second half, but I liked it toward the end and our grit and desire to grind out a win."
Although All-American candidate Maggie Prewitt (18.0 ppg, 6.4 apg, 6.2 rpg) and Benham (11.8 ppg, 6.1 rpg) combined for 33 points and 14 rebounds and commanded the spotlight as Centre (26-3) established a school-record for victories, Benham credited her teammates – specifically those whose biggest contributions often come during practice – for toughening up an untested tournament team which survived despite scoring fewer than 60 points and shooting below 35 percent in victories over Guilford and Wash U.
“We couldn't have done it without each one of those girls,” Benham said. “They were just beat up on the five starters. They were just do it every single day to make us better and stronger. Wash U. and Guilford were both very physical teams, so seeing that the week before prepared us.”
Having survived the first two rounds, Prewitt admitted that, “We feel like we are supposed to be here now.” Not that reaching the Final Four for the first time since 1990 – one year after Prewitt's mother, Lea Wise, guided them there first as the Colonels' head coach – will be easy considering Sweet 16 opponent Carthage derailed Centre's former SCAC rival and No. 4 DePauw in the second round. A victory Friday would bring about an Elite Eight tip-off against either host and No. 6-ranked Mount Union or No. 16 Illinois Wesleyan, which won its first two NCAA contests by a 39.5-point average.
Prewitt has been soaking in the stories of her mother, who has relayed tales of Centre's success from when she stalked the sideline, and is relishing the opportunity to play another 40 minutes under the March Madness spotlight.
“She's been telling me how awesome an experience it'd been and that it can stay with you for the rest of your life,” Prewitt said. “I'm just try to live out her stories and make lifelong memories.”
Transition game for Illinois Wesleyan's Zimmer
Without any hint of wistfulness, Jordan Zimmer says, “2012 looks like a lot of transitions for me.” After capping his career sometime this month and wearing a cap and gown this May, the Illinois Wesleyan senior standout will get married to his college sweetheart and head back home to work on his family's farm.
But first things first. Before planning for the future, Zimmer and the Titans will continue their surprising run in Friday's Sweet 16 matchup at No. 15 Wooster. Illinois Wesleyan was all but counted out of the tournament heading into last Saturday's second round game at No. 1 Hope, but Zimmer kept his squad alive by scoring 28 points in a thrilling 108-101, double-overtime triumph that ranks as the men's bracket's biggest upset thus far.
And if you go by rankings, Illinois Wesleyan is the lone team playing at Wooster that is unranked in the D3hoops.com Top 25, a pod that also includes No. 22 Wittenberg and No. 23 North Central.
Considering last weekend's upset, Zimmer and the Titans will continue to play the underdog card.
“When we get there, we'll give them our best shot and do everything to come out with a win,” the 6-5 guard said. “Every year something crazy happens and we're hoping to be that crazy story this year.”
Zimmer's senior season is proving to be an extended dream sequence, from being a finalist for the Jostens Award to this coming weekend that has the Titans two wins away from their second Final Four trip in three years. He became the program's all-time leader with 253 three-pointers in the upset of Hope, and needs two more treys to shatter the school single-season mark of 97.
Whenever Zimmer (15.8 ppg) and the Titans are eliminated, the senior will go back to his hometown of Delavan, Ill., about 45 minutes west of Illinois Wesleyan's campus, where he will continue the tradition of his grandfather and father started on the family farm. He will start as a hired hand, growing corn and soybeans, before inheriting responsibilities from his dad.
When he returns home, he will do so as a newlywed. As a sophomore, he met Carolyn Leonard through the campus ministry they led together. They had been dating for nearly two years before he popped the question in December.
“God's just blessed us in that way,” Zimmer said.