VIRGINIA BEACH (VA) – Time after time during the greatest season in Delaware Valley College men's basketball history, the Aggies found a way to pull off improbable comebacks. They finally ran out of miracles on Friday evening as an 18-2, second-half run by No. 10 Virginia Wesleyan College helped lift the host Marlins to a 93-63 victory in the opening round of the NCAA Division III tournament.
Meanwhile, the Aggies will head home on Saturday morning knowing that, despite the loss, they had a year to remember. Just three years removed from a 3-22 season (0-12 in conference play), they set a school record with 17 wins (17-11) and finished tied for first in the Freedom Conference. They were the top seed in the conference playoffs thanks to the tiebreaker being in their favor and hosted postseason contests for the first time ever. The squad advanced to the championship game with a 69-66 victory over Wilkes University, and then captured their first-ever Freedom title and NCAA berth with a 79-58 triumph over two-time defending conference champion DeSales University.
However, Virginia Wesleyan, the 2006 national champions who were making its seventh straight trip to the NCAAs (11th overall), proved to be too much. The Marlins improved to 24-4 on the season and will host Franklin & Marshall College in Saturday's second round with the winner headed to next weekend's final 16. The Diplomats posted a 69-56 victory over North Carolina Wesleyan in Friday's opening contest.
"That was the best team I've seen in my three years as head coach and maybe the best one I've seen in all of my time in Division III," said Stitzel, who played at Widener University from 2001 to 2005. "We couldn't make the shots or the stops we needed and they took full advantage of it.
"But, it doesn't take away at all what this team accomplished this year. It's been a great season and this team put the program on the map."
Delaware Valley won the opening tip and got the ball inside to Jeremy Beckett. The sophomore center hit a turnaround jumper just 17 seconds in. However, Virginia Wesleyan ran off 10 straight points in the next two minutes for a 10-2 advantage.
Chris Ellis stopped the spurt by draining a 3-pointer but the Marlins scored four of the next six for a 14-7 ballgame. Jason Goldheimer connected from downtown and Nate Lewis hit one of two from the foul line to pull the Aggies to within three with 13:46 remaining.
However, that was as close as Delaware Valley would come in the half as Virginia Wesleyan responded with an 8-0 run, including back-to-back treys by freshman DJ Woodmore. The Aggies kept battling against the national power and made it 22-16 with some history at the 10:17 mark. Freedom Conference Player of the Year James Jones stepped to the foul line and the senior guard swished both attempts to give him 60 consecutive makes from the charity stripe. That broke the NCAA Division III single-season mark of 59 set by Mike Michelson of the Coast Guard in 1990 (the overall record is 94 by Dirk Rhinehart of Kalamazoo, a streak that spanned the 2000-01 and 2001-02 seasons).
Later in the half, Jones nailed a 3-pointer to pull Delaware Valley to within four at 24-19 before Virginia Wesleyan outscored the visitors, 17-10, in the final nine minutes of the half to take a 41-29 advantage into the intermission. Jones finished the stanza with 12 points, including four more made free throws, but he was just 2-for-11 from the field. Donald Vaughn paced the Marlins with 15 points on 7-for-11 shooting.
In the second half, Ellis put back his own miss with 14:52 remaining to put the Aggie deficit at eight, 50-42. Virginia Wesleyan came down the court and, with the shot clock winding down, Ed Roberts hit a long 3-pointer. That ignited the Marlins on the 18-2 run and, four minutes later, the lead was up to 24, 68-44. Delaware Valley did not get any closer than 18 points the rest of the way and Stitzel took the seniors – Ellis, Goldheimer and Jones, out of the game with 1:18 remaining to get one last cheer from the Aggie faithful who made the near six-hour trip.
Jones hit just five of 23 attempts from the field, but was a perfect 8-for-8 from the foul line and he will go in the Division III record books with 66 straight makes over the last six and a half games. His 20 points upped his school-record, season total to 576 and he finished in fourth place on the Aggie scoring list with 1,526 points in just three years (he transferred from Widener). Jones also finished as the all-time leader in free throws made with and was third in assists (326) and eighth in steals (121).
Beckett, a second-team all-conference selection, was 10-for-23 from the field and ended the evening with 25 points and 11 boards. Ellis added 12 points and a career-high 14 rebounds. Goldheimer hit one 3-pointer and ended his career second on the school's all-time list with 199.
Vaughn had 21 points to lead Virginia Wesleyan. Woodmore added 15 points while Rakeem Davis (12 points, 10 rebounds) and Chris Astorga (10 points, 11 rebounds) each had double-doubles.