Battling through the pain

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Greg Montgomery came up big for Virginia Wesleyan last weekend, after missing the week because of his brother's death. 
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By Brian Lester

Virginia Wesleyan senior Greg Montgomery knows what real adversity is. It’s adversity that has nothing to do with the game of basketball.

Basketball, after all, is just a game. Losing isn't life or death.

Real-life adversity feels different. It hurts more, a lot more, and it is far more difficult to overcome. Montgomery had to deal with it firsthand this month when his brother passed away from diabetes.

He was only 33 and laid to rest Thursday in Texas. Montgomery spent the week there with his family mourning the death.

A day later, Montgomery, still heartbroken, was with his teammates when they battled Dickinson in the Sweet 16 on the campus of Randolph-Macon College. VWC won that game, 75-65. But Montgomery struggled. He took three shots and made one, finishing the night with two points.

The story was different in the Elite Eight.

In a game against R-MC, a conference rival and the top-ranked team in the nation, Montgomery shined. He scored a team-high 14 points off the bench and helped propel the ninth-ranked Marlins to a hard-fought 49-47 win and berth in the Final Four.

It was the perfect end to a bittersweet week, an ending that provided a jolt of joy at a time when Montgomery was fighting through the indescribable pain of losing a family member.

“It was definitely tough,” Montgomery said during a phone interview Monday night. “My brother and I were close. He was a big influence to me. He always pushed me to be my best.”

Montgomery’s brother would have been proud of him and what he has helped the Marlins (27-5) accomplish during a remarkable season. He’d also be proud of how far Montgomery has come over the last four years.

Montgomery began his career at Morgan State but admits it wasn’t the right fit. Now in his fourth year with the Marlins, Montgomery is in the midst of the best season of his college career, averaging 12.8 points and 7.8 rebounds.

Who will win the men's national title?
UW-Stevens Point
Virginia Wesleyan

Hard work is part of the reason for his success. Added confidence has also made a difference.

But Montgomery also gives a lot of credit to his brother, for always pushing him to strive for more.

“He always brought out the best in me and would always be on me, telling me about how much potential I had as a player,” Montgomery said. “That goes all the way back to high school. He always wanted me to push for more and to never be satisfied.”

Those words resonate even more now as Montgomery and his VWC teammates head into the weekend aiming for the program’s first national championship since 2006.

Yes, the Marlins have had quite a run already. Most teams only dream about being on this stage. Just being in this position isn’t enough.

“We’re very satisfied that we’ve made this far. It’s a great feeling,” Montgomery said. “But we are on a mission and we believe that we can accomplish more.”

There are a lot of reasons the Marlins on the doorstep of a national title. The play of Montgomery is one of them. VWC coach Dave Macedo can’t emphasize that enough.

He’s also impressed with the way Montgomery has dealt with such a difficult time in his life.

“I’m very proud of the way Greg has handled things,” Macedo said. “He was hurt for the conference championship game and then he lost his brother during the NCAA Tournament. He’s had a lot on his mind and has been through a very hard week.”

Macedo has helped provide comfort. So have the other players on the team.

Virginia Wesleyan athletics photo

“We’re a close group, almost like a family, and my teammates have been there for me the whole way,” Montgomery said. “They have been a big help and have helped me take my mind off it. I can’t take those guys enough for the support.”

The Marlins support each other on the floor as well, using stellar teamwork to their advantage. Seven players average at least six points per contest, including sophomore Khory Moore, who is pouring in just over 17 points per outing.

“Our success starts with our seniors and the leadership they provide,” Macedo said. “We’ve also become more consistent throughout the year. It’s made a big difference.”

Montgomery has proven to be consistent and has come a long way since the first two seasons of his career at VWC, when he was averaging less than two points per outing.

“He’s had to wait his turn being behind some very good players, but he’s made the most of his opportunities this year,” Macedo said. “He’s a very explosive player.”

Having the opportunity to be playing on the final weekend of the season means a great deal to Montgomery, especially considering the Marlins had to get past the Yellow Jackets, who had been a thorn in their side all year.

R-MC defeated VWC in the first three meetings of the year, all by single digits, including an 81-74 overtime win in the ODAC tournament championship game.

“It was a great feeling beaten them because they had gotten us three times during the season,” Montgomery said. “We’ve played in the Sweet 16 and the Elite Eight before but could never get over the hump. We finally did it.”

And now it’s on to the final four Friday night at the Salem Civic Center in Virginia. The Marlins play UW-Stevens Point in the second national semifinal.

In a perfect world, Montgomery’s brother would be there to share the special moment. Still, Montgomery plans to play his best because his brother wouldn’t expect anything less from him.

“He was always my biggest fan,” Montgomery said. “I want to go out and play for him and I know my teammates will be play just as hard.”