Heartbreak and William & Mary basketball are synonymous.
The latest example is the Tribe’s 72-61 loss Monday in the Colonial Athletic Association championship game against Northeastern, guaranteeing the program’s history without an NCAA Tournament bid will continue for another year.
Indeed, the closest William & Mary will get to having its One Shining Moment in March is alum Jon Stewart’s appearance on WWE Raw.
The ubiquitous fan mantra there’s always next year takes a more ominous tone when the burden of repeated heartbreaks builds up.
And that burden is a millstone that rivals other dubious sports droughts, such as the Chicago Cubs’ 70 years without a World Series appearance and 107 without a title.
Monday’s CAA title loss was William & Mary’s fourth in the title round since 2008 and second in as many years.
Following the Cubs parallel, 2014 was William & Mary’s answer to the 2003 NLCS. The Tribe were a shot away from making the Field of 68, but Delaware’s Devon Saddler sank a bucket in the waning moments.
If 2014 was the Tribe’s 2003 NLCS, 2015 was its 2008 Cubs season. That was the year Chicago rolled to the best record in the National League but was summarily swept out of the Divisional Series by the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Likewise, William & Mary ran to a regular-season CAA crown. But a 92-91, double-overtime win Sunday’s semifinal against Hofstra seemingly sapped the Tribe’s spirit Monday.
Northeastern pounced to a 10-0 lead and never looked back, extending the lead to as many as 22 points in the second half.
“I’m not sure I thought we were ready to play,” guard Marcus Thornton said in Monday’s postgame press conference, via YouTube. “But they played a game yesterday, too.”
Northeastern won its own closely contested semifinal, 78-71 over UNC-Wilmington. But the Huskies didn’t go an extra 10 minutes in an emotionally charged contest.
William & Mary’s regular-season championship guarantees it a place in the National Invitational Tournament, which provides some level of consolation.
“It’s good for us, another national tournament,” Thornton said. “Obviously not our main goal, so we’re definitely disappointed in that. But we appreciate being able to make the NIT.”
For Thornton, the NIT is his final opportunity to don William & Mary’s green-and-gold. And his impending departure leaves the Tribe’s “next year” shrouded in more doubt than ever.
Thornton was one of the nation’s most prolific scorers, averaging a shade below 20 points per game. He hit that number in Monday’s loss, trying to erase the heartbreak experienced when his last-ditch attempt against Delaware a year prior.
Another big scoring night befit Thornton. But, unfortunately, the Tribe falling because of their defensive woes was equally appropriate.
Northeastern’s torrid, 59.1-percent shooting pace was too much for Thornton and Co. to shoot their way back into contention.
William & Mary was also outrebounded, 31-28. Rebounding was a point of emphasis to improve, the Tribe’s Daniel Dixon told Gene Wang in February for a Washington Post piece on their road to an NCAA berth.
Sour memories of defensive breakdowns and missed rebounds will surely resonate in the offseason, just as Saddler’s 2014 bucket lingered last year. Or, as plenty of other what-if scenarios linger each year William & Mary goes without making the Big Dance.