Marlins at home in Sweet 16

More news about: Virginia Wesleyan
The Marlins of Virginia Wesleyan have won two games in each of the past five NCAA Tournaments. Nobody else can say that. And one of these teams, VWC or Randolph-Macon, could return to Salem, where the two played in the ODAC final two weeks ago.
Virginia Wesleyan athletics photo

By Rob Knox

If it’s the second weekend of March then that means that Virginia Wesleyan’s men’s basketball team is still dancing.

In what has become an annual rite of late winter, the Marlins are in the Sweet 16 for the fifth consecutive season and the seventh time since winning the national championship in 2006. 

Awaiting ninth-ranked Virginia Wesleyan (25-5 overall) is 10th-ranked Dickinson (24-5) in a heavyweight sectional showdown hosted by Old Dominion Athletic Conference rival Randolph-Macon at 5 p.m. Friday night. The host and No. 1 ranked Yellow Jackets battle St. John Fisher at 8 p.m. Friday’s winners will meet Saturday night at 7 p.m. for a trip to the Final Four in Salem.

Since trips to this round of the tournament have become routine, Virginia Wesleyan should just automatically add this round of this tournament to its basketball schedule when it’s released. After all, Virginia Wesleyan has won 24 NCAA Tournament games in its history, captured a national championship and made two trips to the Final Four.

With their tradition of excellence – especially in the last decade -- the Marlins are one of the gold standards of Division III basketball. Players and numbers have changed. The winning has not. It’s been transferred from generation to generation of Marlin basketball players.

Each senior class has the responsibility of deepening the footsteps of those set before them.

“It’s a credit to the past players of our program,” Macedo said “There’s been a long tradition of players that have won a  lot of ball games here and they have always brought into the team concept, prepared the right way, put the team first and they feel like their goal is to play deep into March.”

This year’s senior class of Greg Montgomery, Brevan Lyons, Brandon Mitchell and Cam Owens has made sure to uphold the special legacy of the Virginia Wesleyan basketball program. They are motivated each time they step into the Batten Center and see the many navy blue and silver banners hanging from the rafters and on the walls. Each time one of them wants to run a drill at half-speed, they feel the incessant and invisible shoves from past players urging them to go harder.

“Our run right now has been a credit to our senior players,” Macedo said. “They have saved their best for last and lead our team in so many respects. They’ve had to make some plays and I am really proud about that. We have some underclassmen who have matured. This is a good group in terms of our chemistry. I believe we’re hitting our stride. We’re definitely going to need that. Hopefully we’ll save our best for this weekend.”

Virginia Wesleyan averages 78.9 points per game and allows 66.2 points each outing. Sophomore Khory Moore, who scored a career-high 41 points in the 77-74 win at William Paterson, currently tops Marlin scoring with 17.6 points per contest. Montgomery averages 13.1 and  Owens contributes 10.9 per game.

At home, but on the road

Ironically, Virginia Wesleyan is in the Sweet 16 for the fifth consecutive year, but has not hosted a Sweet 16 game since 2007. In the past five years, the Marlins have played their round of 16 games at Williams (2011 and 2013), UW-Whitewater (2012), Mary Washington (2014) and Randolph-Macon (2015).

Macedo has seen plenty of things in his coaching career, but even he was a little impressed with Moore’s performance against William Paterson.

Consider that Moore was the fifth player in Virginia Wesleyan history to score 40 or more points. His point total fell two points shy of the school-record 43 set by Tom Brett during the 1968-69 season. Lastly his 41 points was the highest scoring effort for a Marlin since 1993 when Walt Lassiter scored 38 points against Emory and Henry.

“I thought it was a special performance and we don’t win the games unless he makes those plays,” Macedo said “He really stepped up on both ends of the court. You could see he had an explosiveness about him. He’s pretty special. Winning on the road is tough to do.”

While Moore is capable of scoring outbursts, the Marlins have enjoyed balanced scoring throughout the year however, with several additional players stepping up for big contributions.

Sophomores Tim Jones scored 18 and Poe added 14 points and a game-high 13 rebounds to lead the Marlins to a 101-86 win over John Carroll in a NCAA first-round game.

The Marlins have also benefitted from timely totals from Lyons and Mitchell as well as from junior Nick Doyle.

The Marlins enter the Sweet 16 as one of the top 3-point shooting teams in the nation, currently ranked seventh in 3-point attempts and 16th overall in triples made. VWC has knocked down 290 so far this season, just 13 shy of the program record. While Moore leads that effort with 71 made, Lyons has hit 62, Owens has hit 56, and Doyle has put in 43.

The Marlins’ success as a program has been predicated on talented players patiently waiting for their opportunity to shine. Many of these players learned plenty of lessons and got better just from observing and practicing with last season’s class, who in turned learned from those before them and so on. 

To play deep into March, a little good fortune has to be involved, like for instance during the Marlins’ 2006 title run, TonTon Balenga made a 3-pointer from the corner with 1.7 seconds remaining to help the Marlins stage a memorable rally to beat Lincoln (Pa.) in a Sweet 16 thriller, 72-71, in which they trailed in a majority of the game.

Of course that shot was a prelude to the game-winning 3-pointer he hit with 2.1 seconds to go a week later that clinched the national championship in 2006 against Wittenberg.

“What helps is the type of player we’re able to get,” Macedo said. “They buy in right away and I am real proud of them. It’s a next man up attitude. The players we have here expect this success. I don’t think it’s easy because you do need some good fortune along the way. For our program, it’s about staying hungry, winning and hanging banners while doing it the right away. The guys know what’s been done and is expected. They come here for those reasons and to enjoy a great experience. We’ve had a ton of talented players over the years here that have set the tone for us.”

For the Marlins to keep playing, they will have to knock off Dickinson and possibly Randolph-Macon, a team that has been Virginia Wesleyan’s kryptonite this season. The Marlins have lost three games to the Yellow Jackets, including the most recent decision an 81-74 overtime setback in the ODAC final.

Dickinson is making its second straight appearance in the Sweet 16. The Centennial Conference tournament champions survived Albertus Magnus, 74-72, at home last weekend to reach the second weekend of the season. For Virginia Wesleyan, this will be the second straight season it will meet a CC opponent. The Marlins beat Johns Hopkins in last season’s tournament.

The Red Devils are beginning to build something special as well in Carlisle under the guidance of head coach Alan Seretti. Dickinson has won 69 games over the last three years. The Devils have been led by the scoring trio of Gerry Wixted, a 6-8 senior forward, Brandon Angradi, a 6-4 junior guard, and Ted Hinnenkamp, a 6-7 junior guard.  Wixted is averaging 18.3 points per game, Angradi has nailed 86 triples and is adding 13.8 points per contest, and Hinnekamp averages 12.8 points each game.

“We’re not to looking ahead,” Macedo said. “Dickinson is very good, big and incredibly efficient. We have our hands full and we’re going to have to play our best. Dickinson may be the biggest team we’ve ever played. They are big, talented and pose a lot of different threats.” 

While the basketball brilliance has been great and bonded the community, it’s the bond of the former players with this current team that has made the Marlins a strong program. When former players return to offer guidance and words of encouragement, it’s like history springing to life.

“It’s an extraordinary group of young men,” Macedo said. “The relationships we have are priceless. I have great kids who work hard. Right now they’re making the most of their opportunity and writing their own conclusion. It’s a year-round process with our program.

“More important than winning games, they have impacted the program and community.”