Image: Sam Basel
As fans of both Richmond and Davidson fans filled the Capital One Arena, the stands quickly became a raucous sea of red. While both teams playing in this year's A10 Championship game were focused on winning this game, the stakes were a lot higher for the Richmond. Entering the conference tournament as a six seed, well outside of the bubble, a win here would be the Spiders' last opportunity to make it to the NCAA Tournament with their veteran core.
The figurative fire under Richmond's butts burned bright at the start of the game. Richmond's Jacob Gilyard, the biggest facilitator in their run so far, put serious pressure on Foster Loyer, limiting any shot opportunities and forcing the Wildcat guard to dish to another shooter. Down low, Andre Gustavson and Grant Golden had their work cut out for them against Sam Mennenga and Luka Brajkovic. Strong defense from both sides defined the first few possessions of the game, as Richmond's Andre Gustavson turned the ball over on an errant pass, only for Davidson to commit a shot clock violation on the next possession. It was clear early that in this game, buckets would have to be earned.
The first player to earn some points was Richmond's Tyler Burton, who started off scoring with a jumper from the short corner. After snagging the rebound from a Hyunjung Lee miss, Richmond ran back to the other end of the floor, Nathan Cayo kicked it out to Jacob Gilyard at the arc, and Richmond was off to a quick 5-point lead. According to Gilyard, Richmond's early aggression, especially his own, was a big part of their strategy early on in the game.
"We wanted to set the tone early for sure," Gilyard said. "But for me personally, I think, as a team, we're a lot better when I'm aggressive."
Sam Mennenga spun his way to the hoop to make sure the Wildcats weren't left completely out to dry, but by the first media timeout, Richmond was off to a dominant 11-2 start. Nathan Cayo was huge in this opening stretch, recording 4 of Richmond's first 11 points.
Heading into that timeout, the Richmond fans let out a commanding roar, as Grant Golden and other players on the bench continued to rile them up on their way into the huddle. Davidson clearly took this to heart, as right out of the timeout, as Mike Jones hits a three to cut the lead back down to six points. In the future, when sports scholars in 100 years debate the idea of basketball being a game of runs, they will no doubt look at this game. After that Jones three pointer, Davidson collected themselves, and brought the game to 13-10 by the under-12. The Wildcats completed an 8-2 run in just about four minutes, while the Spiders grew absolutely ice cold from the field.
Tyler Burton would hit a layup and a jumper, and while he headed to the bench with two fouls, Jacob Gilyard would continue the run with a step-back three pointer, and Grant Golden would hit a layup to help get the Spiders back up 24-18. Of course, with the nature of this game being what it was, the Spiders would then not hit another field goal in the final four minutes of the game. Davidson would finish on an 8-0 run. Sam Mennenga, who established himself as the most physical player on the court in the first, led all scorers with 10 points at the break.
According to Richmond Coach Chris Mooney, Mennenga's performance the entire game was a huge crux for the Spiders defensively.
"He's a good player," Mooney said, explaining his team's focus of shutting him down from three. " That was our game plan, was that the guy he was guarding--whether it be Mennenga or the other guy at the four, Nelson Boachie-Yiadom, that we would help a little bit more on all the curls and the cuts. He made us pay for it."
Mennenga would finish the day with 18 points, shooting 4-4 from three point range.
As the second half opened, both teams played a lot more parallel to each other, entering droughts and hot streaks at relatively the same time. Luka Brajkovic continued to be an excellent playmaker for the Wildcats early in this half, executing solid ball screens, and driving to the basket for layups that would keep the Wildcats up early on. Just before the first media timeout of the half, fans of both teams were treated to a three point shootout. Gilyard hit one from the right corner to get Richmond up 34-28, followed by Foster Loyer to make it 34-31. Two possessions later, Gilyard would hit another three from on a give and go from Nathan Cayo, immediately followed by Hyunjung Lee hitting a fadeaway from the right wing with a big hand in his face.
As both teams settled down a bit from the field, foul trouble became a huge issue down the stretch. Both teams entered the bonus with a decent amount of time remaining, and drawing fouls and getting to the line now became a huge key to victory. Tyler Burton was the recipient of two huge and-1 plays late, drawing a raucous round of applause from the Richmond faithful, as they tried to come back from a 60-56 deficit. Burton would hit the free throws on both occasions to keep the Spiders alive, but it was Matt Grace who would hit a similar play to tie the game at 62, and take the deciding lead with a free throw. Grace, who had his moments during the tournament, was poised to make the most important play of their entire season. Before he took the free throw, teammate Grant Golden grabbed him by the jersey and appeared to offer him some words of encouragement.
"Make this free throw," Golden recounted. "Make this free throw. That was it."
Grace would make the free throw for his third point of the game. After Gilyard went 1-2 from the line on a final attempt, and Davidson would miss a last second shot, the Richmond Spiders rushed the court in celebration, winning their first Atlantic 10 Championship since 2011. For a veteran team that has had plenty of ups and downs over the years, being able to win this title has been a perfect way to finish this team's story.
"When we decided to come back, we knew we had unfinished business," Gilyard said. "That was kind of our motto for the whole year."
Gilyard would finish the day with 26 points, and would win Most Oustanding Player of the tournament. Grant Golden would also be named to the all-tournament team. The seventh team to win the conference in the last seven tournaments, Coach Mooney talked about how hard it is to lead a successful team in the Atlantic 10.
"It's an extremely high level conference," Mooney said. "The league is tremendous. What is very striking to me as someone who's been in the league for a long time is how committed everyone is."
Following the Selection Show, Richmond received a 12 seed in the Midwest Region of the 2022 NCAA Tournament, and will face Big 10 Champs Iowa in the first round. As for the Wildcats, they received a 10 seed in the West, where they will play Foster Loyer's former school, Michigan State. In his post game presser, Coach McKillop described this team as a "joy to coach."
"They have been a pleasure and have been so coachable from start to finish," McKillop said. "We've won 27 games. We're 15-3 in a very good conference, the A10. We won the regular season title. We knocked off a No. 10 team on their home court."
After all the talk, the speculation, and the fear in regards to bids, the Atlantic 10 once again avoided being a one-bid league, clinching at least two seeds for the seventeenth consecutive season.