|Devon Byrd and the Captains have been fueled by the last year's humbling Sweet Sixteen loss.
Photo by Dave Hilbert, d3photography.com
By Brian Lester
They were both star high school basketball players in the state of Virginia, but until they arrived on campus at Christopher Newport, that was the extent of what Sam Porter and Devon Byrd had in common.
Their paths first crossed during their campus visit. It was the beginning of a special relationship between the two teammates.
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Now, as juniors, Porter and Byrd are playing instrumental roles in the Captains' memorable NCAA Tournament run, and the bond they have forged over the last three seasons has so much to do with their success.
"A lot of it has to do with how we are on and off the court," Porter said. "We are roommates and are together all of the time. We know each other well and that helps us play well as teammates."
Byrd echoes those thoughts and is thankful the two have remained as close off the court as they have on it.
"We've been roommates three years now, but after that first year, I was hoping she would stick with me. We have," Byrd said. "We're there for each other, on and off the court, and it's the same with our whole team. Our relationship as a team is unbelievable. We get along so well. We're all different and I think that's why we all click."
No one will debate that fact, especially with the run the Captains have enjoyed en route to reaching the Final Four for only the second time in the last 45 years.
Christopher Newport has won nine consecutive games, notching its 29th victory of the season Saturday with a 76-66 road win over Ohio Northern in the regional final that ended the Polar Bears' 30-game win streak.
A steady contributor all season, Porter finished with 10 points and tallied three steals on a day when the Captains forced 19 turnovers, including 15 off steals.
"I feel like defense changed the game for us," Porter said. "Our games come down to defense and we pulled it out by doing what we do best."
Describing the feeling of reaching the Final Four is something that isn't easy to do and Byrd will tell you she's still trying to wrap her hands around the reality of it.
"It's a lot to handle and take in right now. I almost don't know how to feel until we get to Michigan, Byrd said. "I'm so excited. I don't even want to be in school this week. I just want to go play."
Porter and Byrd have worked for this moment since arriving on campus. Both players arrived on campus with high expectations.
Porter scored more than 1,100 points and grabbed close to 800 rebounds in her high school career and led her team to the state semifinals as a senior. She earned all-state honors that season as well.
Byrd was equally impressive as a high school basketball player, also pouring in more than 1,100 points and finishing as the third-leading scorer in program history. She was also a volleyball star, leading her team to three district titles. Byrd ran track as well.
Neither missed a beat when they arrived on campus.
|Sam Porter has been an impact player for the Captains since she first stepped on the court as a freshman.
Photo by Christopher Newport athletics
Despite starting just seven games, Porter was the leading scorer and rebounder for the Captains as a freshman, averaging 9.3 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. She did the same as a sophomore, putting up 10.2 points and 6.4 rebounds per outing.
Porter also racked up 81 steals, the 40th best total in the country, which helped propel her to first-team All-CAC honors.
Porter doesn't really have an explanation for why she was successful early in her career.
"It kind of just happened," Porter said. "I didn't really think about it. I just went out and played."
Byrd played, too, and she had no problem stepping into a prominent role for the Captains. As a freshman, she was the fourth-leading scorer (7.0 ppg) and the third-leading rebounder (4.3). She also led the Captains in field goal percentage, knocking down 54.7 percent of her shots.
Last season, Byrd was right behind Porter in scoring (9.3) and rebounding (6.2), earning second-team all-conference honors along the way.
"When I came in as a freshman, I knew I had to help the team. I wanted to do what I could do,," Byrd said. "I would have to say my decision making has gotten a lot better this year. I'm seeing the floor a lot better."
Both have been key contributors this season as well, with Porter leading the team in scoring at 10.9 points per outing and Byrd ranking fifth in scoring with her 7.2 points per game average. They are two of the key pieces on a balanced team where seven players are averaging five or more points per game. That balance keeps the pressure off the shoulders of any one player.
"Any night, anyone can step up and do their thing," Porter said. "That is what I love about the team. There isn't one main scorer. Everyone works together to get the win."
The formula has worked this year, but for a moment, rewind to last season when the Captains came up short in their bid to win the Capital Athletic Conference tournament but managed to reach the Sweet 16.
With Scranton rolling to an 82-46 win, it turned out to not be such a sweet experience.
"That game last year hurt a lot," Byrd said. "We were the underdog but we felt good about getting there. We felt like we could go all the way."
From the ashes of that pain, a desire to not have a repeat of that performance this season fueled the Captains in their quest to punch a Final Four ticket.
"It definitely motivated us a lot. Getting a taste of it last year, we knew we wanted to come back and go farther."
The Captains are further along on the tourney trail than they were a season ago and have lost only twice this season, the last defeat coming in early February when they were edged 74-69 by Mary Washington on the road.
Rather than let the loss consume them, the Captains flipped a switch and haven't looked back.
"After that last loss, we knew on any given night anyone can beat us," Byrd said. "We come in with the mentality that any team that comes into our gym or if we go into their gym, we have to step up and play like it's a championship game."
Porter and Byrd are now on the verge of winning a championship. The first obstacle is top-ranked Amherst on Friday night at Calvin College in Michigan.
Porter has no words to describe the feeling of being so close to a title and talked about the balance teams must find when dealing with the importance of the games and finding time to enjoy the moment as well.
"We try not to think too much about it, to not put extra pressure on us," Porter said. "At the same time, we're going to a Final Four and we want to have fun and enjoy it. We're going to try to get the best of both worlds."
Byrd can't wait for the experience. And when she's in the locker room Friday night getting ready for the the biggest game of her life up to this point, she'll follow her routine of putting on her jersey and socks in the same order. It's a pre-game superstition she's held onto throughout her career.
"I have to do all the same things. I can't change it now," Byrd said.
And why would she? Much like the bond Porter and Byrd share on and off the court, you don't try to fix what isn't broken, especially when it has a team two wins away from championship glory.