For the first time in CAA Tournament history, the four teams in the semifinals were a repeat of the previous year. The seeding may have been different, but the matchups were the same as 2015, ensuring a Bloody Sunday in Baltimore.
First up was #1 Hofstra vs. #5 William & Mary. The Pride were looking to avenge last year's heartbreaking loss to the Tribe. William & Mary meanwhile would be gunning for their third straight championship game appearance and that elusive first-ever NCAA Tournament birth.
Right away fans got a sense of how this one would play out, as William & Mary's Terry Tarpey hammered Hofstra's All-CAA big man Rokas Gustys with a flagrant elbow less than two minutes into the contest. These teams do not like each other, and the early unforced turnovers by both squads showed that the adrenaline was flowing.
The Tribe pulled an upset over James Madison the day before by doing two things they rarely did in the regular season: playing consistent defense and crashing the offensive glass. Coach Tony Shaver deserves a lot of credit for those developments, as well as the gameplan he put in place to limit Gustys and CAA Player of the Year Juan'ya Green. All game William & Mary switched defenses - man-to-man, 3-2 and 1-2-2 zone - to slow Hofstra's pace. They also doubled Green nearly every possession and crowded Gustys down low.
The result - four first half points for Green and zero for Gustys. With those guys smothered, Hofstra turned to fellow All-CAA award-winner Ameen Tanksley (23 points) and the other starting wings to shoulder the scoring load. The Tribe meanwhile had their offense humming with 46.4% shooting and a huge 22-point boost from reserve shooter Greg Malinowski.
Still, Green can be such a difference maker. Every time William & Mary put together a run (credit the well-traveling fans for getting loud in Baltimore), Hofstra answered. The punctuation mark was a second half stretch in the final minutes. Green, leading a small-ball lineup with Gustys in foul trouble, went on tear where he dazzled fans with his full repertoire of moves. He found Tanksley on a give-and-go, set up Koon for a baseline reverse, blew past Dixon for a basket and then hit a step back three to highlight a run that put Hofstra up 65-59 with 4:16 to play.
The Tribe were not done. Coming out of a media timeout, they went on a three shot, 8-0 run in less than sixty seconds to regain the lead. After trading buckets and defensive stops over the final few possessions the stage was set. With the score tied at 67 and less than thirty seconds on the clock, Joe Mihalich put the ball in Green's hands. The elusive senior made his move with about 10 seconds on the clock and found Denton Koon under the basket for the game-winning layup.
That would be how Hofstra got their revenge on the Tribe and punched their ticket to the championship game.
Next up was the #2 Seahawks of UNC Wilmington vs. the defending champion Huskies. Northeastern, who gained the final first round bye on the last day of the regular season, were the lowest seed (#6) in the semis. Maybe the most experienced team in the CAA, they would be hoping for one final Big Dance appearance for the quartet of senior starters.
After UNCW fell behind by as many 16 points before edging upset-minded College of Charleston in the quarterfinals, many wondered if the Seahawks would come out of the gates with another flat effort. For the first few minutes, those fans may have had a point. Northeastern threw a zone at the Hawks, and Kevin Keatts' team was all too happy to take the first outside jumper over the defense that presented itself. There was very little player movement, probing or finding the soft spots inside the arc.
Northeastern, with all-league talent in seniors Quincy Ford and David Walker, had little trouble navigating Wilmington's pressing defense. Their strategy early on was to win the battle down low, and they did a great job of passing high-low and getting opportunities in the paint.
Wilmington's best offense was their second chance points, as they led that category 12-1 in the half. Even despite their inefficiency, the Hawks went to the locker room up 34-32 just by getting more possessions and shot attempts.
In the second half, just like the Charleston game, Wilmington found their shot and it fueled their intensity. We also started to see the mental fatigue from NU that comes from playing that Pitino press that UNCW runs. The Huskies started to have some unfortunate mistakes and forgot what had helped them keep things close in the first half. Getting into a track meet with Wilmington is a bold strategy, and before Northeastern noticed, they were down double digits. As CAA fans have seen many times this year, UNCW can gain momentum in a flurry when they're collecting steals and attacking on offense.
Chris Flemmings was the star for Wilmington. The DII transfer and All-CAA wing who seems to be coming out of his late-season shooting slump at just the right time had 21 points, including 13 in the second half. Craig Ponder and Denzel Ingram joined him in double digits and were key components of that assaulting defense.
Coach Bill Coen and the Huskies had one last trick in their sleeve, and that was to hit Wilmington with a taste of their own medicine. In the final minutes, the Huskies went berserk with full court pressure and forced some turnovers. Remember, this is the first postseason for Flemmings and the first time as favorites for a young UNCW team. The Huskies converted through a couple of fouls and all of the sudden it was a three point game in the final seconds.
However, that mental fatigue factor would rear its head one last time. Ford went to the line and knocked down the first to cut the lead to two with :03 to play. Then off the intentional miss he committed a lane violation and gave the ball back to the Seahawks.
With the defending champs out, Hofstra and Wilmington now meet for a rematch of the CAA Championship from exactly 10 years ago. It's the #1 seed vs the #2 and both would be a worthy representative of this conference.