By CHRIS MACKOWIAK
After a heartbreaking 63-62 loss in the Capital Athletic Conference (CAC) Tournament vs. Christopher Newport on Saturday, the Salisbury men’s basketball teams’ final hopes to make the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Tournament were in the hands of the selection committee to provide the Sea Gulls with one of only 21 at-large bid spots.
Monday afternoon, the players’ hopes were answered with a bid into the 2017 NCAA Tournament. The bid is the third-straight for Salisbury. The stretch is a program record for consecutive NCAA-appearances.
“To go to three-straight tournaments, especially for these seniors, I think is great. Now we have to start making some dents and we’ll have a good test in the first round against Endicott,” SU head coach Andrew Sachs said, leading the team the last two seasons.
Salisbury’s initial mission changed to them simply trying to get into the tournament. Now, the Sea Gulls must gear up for a trip north in order to continue their strong season. One positive is that senior guard Justin Witmer returned from a recent ankle injury and is back healthy with the team.
“It was hard to sit there while I was injured. I wanted to do everything I could to help the team,” Witmer said. “But just being back is great. I’m thankful to have this opportunity.”
Salisbury will hit the road to start off the NCAA Tournament on Friday night. The team will travel just under three hours north to Neumann University (Aston, Pa.) in order to play their first-round opponent Endicott College.
Endicott (22-6, 15-3 CCC), also known as the Gulls, come into the tournament as another at-large selection after falling 67-64 at Nichols in their conference championship. Most notable on their resume is a win over Middlebury College, champions of the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC), early on to start the season.
“I know they’ll be well prepared. There aren’t any bad teams in the tournament now. You’re with the best of the best and we have to take it one game at a time,” coach Sachs said.
If Salisbury is able to get by Endicott into the second round, they would see either the host-school and Colonial States Athletic Conference (CSAC) champions, Neumann University (25-2) or Commonwealth Coast Conference (CCC) champions Nichols (23-5).
For the Sea Gulls, the mission becomes to improve on the basketball court ahead of their trip. Closing in the final minutes of games has become an issue for Salisbury. Christopher Newport came back from a nine-point deficit in the second half to win on senior center Tim Daly’s jumper with 1.2 seconds left.
The NCAA Tournament appearance is also a chance for Salisbury to continue with their senior trio of Witmer and forwards Gordon Jeter and Wyatt Smith. The three bring necessary veteran experience to the squad after the Sea Gulls lost three of their last four.
“It’s another opportunity to avenge our losses from the last tournament. To just prove we are one of the top teams in the country and that we are capable of doing something special this year,” Smith said.
“After the loss on Saturday, there weren’t a lot of dry eyes in the locker room because we thought it may be the end,” coach Sachs said. “Again, what [Witmer, Smith, and senior forward Gordon Jeter] have done to help the program to the next level is a testament to their work ethic.”
Around the CAC, Christopher Newport (25-2) made the tournament via their automatic bid as CAC champions. However, the Captains will play outside Philadelphia just like the Sea Gulls.
Because the Christopher Newport women’s basketball team also won the CAC, they will host games inside the Freeman Center this weekend. This scenario pushes the men’s team out on the road, travelling about six hours north to play at Swarthmore (22-5).
The Captains and the Sea Gulls are on opposite sides of the 64-team field, though, so the two rivals would not meet until the National Championship game, hypothetically.
The Sea Gulls will face the Endicott Gulls on Friday evening for their first-round match-up. The time is to be announced. If Salisbury wins, they would face either Neumann or Nichols on Saturday in Aston, Pa. Stay tuned to the Flyer for continuing coverage of Salisbury’s NCAA Tournament run and updates on their first match-up.
“I’m just happy to have practice one more day and happy to play one more game Friday,” Witmer said.