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NCAA Tournament: Swarthmore advances to third-straight Sweet 16

03/08/2020, 10:45am EDT
By Kevin Callahan

Nate Shafer (above) had 14 points and 20 rebounds as Swarthmore advanced to the Sweet 16 for the third straight year. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)

Kevin Callahan (@CP_KCallahan)

SWARTHMORE –– A week ago on this floor, top-seeded Swarthmore had its 26-game winning streak halted and its unbeaten season shattered on a heartbreaking buzzer beater by No. 8 Johns Hopkins in the Centennial Conference championship game.

“Like many of our games this year, we are getting team’s best shot,” Swarthmore coach Landry Kosmalski said.

Understandably, too, as the Garnet was the last unbeaten of 1,070 NCAA men’s basketball teams in all divisions until last week. National media outlets were refreshing their GPS to find this Delaware County school known for books more than ball.

So there was no surprise No. 1 ranked Swarthmore took another shot Saturday night, overcoming an early second-half deficit to stay alive with an intense 86-78 win over Ithaca College.

“It’s exhausting,” senior Nate Shafer said after collecting 20 rebounds and 14 points in a tireless 37 minutes of this second-round game of the NCAA Division III tournament in Tarble Pavilion. “It’s something we have noticed for a while now, just about every team we have played is prepared and ready to play in their Super Bowl.

“And it takes everything out of us no matter who we play.”

Truly, there is no higher compliment than receiving an opponent’s elite effort and Swarthmore (27-1) certainly deserve to be flattered as they have become one of the premier programs in D-III.

Last year, the Garnet advanced to the National Championship game, losing to Wisconsin-Oshkosh 96-82, and finished the season ranked second in the national polls with a 29-4 record. The previous season, Swarthmore posted a then-program-best 25-6 record and trip to the Elite Eight.

Next Friday, will mark the third-straight trip to the Sweet 16 when the Garnet faces Whitworth (Spokane, Washington), a 73-66 winner over Texas Dallas.

“This journey is different from last year,” said Kosmalski, now in his eighth season and who has posted five-straight seasons of 20 or more wins. “We’re trying to be the best team we can be and get better each day and learn from our mistakes.”

Remarkably, this is the fifth-consecutive year Kosmalski has posted the most successful season in program history.

Kosmalski was quick to salute Ithaca (24-6), which was riding a 12-game winning streak after a comeback overtime victory against Babson College, 94-88 in the first round.

“Congratulations to them, they had a great year,” Kosmalski said about the Bombers, who posted their first NCAA victory since 2012-13 on Friday night here at Swarthmore.

Ithaca senior Riley Thompson, a 6-foot guard from Council Rock North, finished a great career this weekend in front of family and friends. He scored 11 points against the Garnet after netting 26 points in defeating Babson and childhood friend Jack Coolahan, who is also from Newtown.

CR North grad Riley Thompson (above) wrapped up his Ithaca career by leading the Bombers to their first NCAA win in seven years. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)

“It kind of came full circle I guess, if there’s any place where I want my career to end this is a good one,” said Thompson, who scored over 1,000 points. “To get a tournament win is something I’ll never forget.

“It hurts how it ended, but in weeks and years to come, it will be nothing but positive reflection, not only for the season but for the entire journey.”

Veteran Ithaca coach Jim Mullins won’t soon forget Thompson, who scored 36 this year in a game against Montclair State.

“He means so much to me personally,” Mullins said. “Every once in a while you’re with special people, and I kind feel Riley is the son that I never had.

“He has been a great leader both in word and in deed. I think his intensity has kind of set a standard for everyone associated with him and I think the impact he has had on this program will be felt for years to come.”

Swarthmore has a guard who will make an impact the next few years as freshman Vinny DeAngelo from Sun Valley led the Garnet with 21 points.

Sophomore guard George Visconti added 15 and junior guard Conor Harkins scored 13.

Zac O'Dell, who is from Schenectady, N.Y., grabbed 13 rebounds over Ithaca, which is about a three-hour drive from his home.

“We absolutely do,” O’Dell on receiving the opponent’s best shot. “That’s the way we were able to win tonight, that adversity all year long has prepared us for this moment.

“We have a bunch of guys on this team that really hate to lose. We’re just competitors, guys want to win not just for ourselves but for each other.”

On Friday, when the Garnet advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament for the fourth season in a row, Harkins and Shafer reached 1,000 points in their careers to join O'Dell in Swarthmore’s 26-member club.

“This year is completely different guys, but we may have the same goals as last year,” the 6-6 Shafer said. “The experience last year made us better, but it’s not what is driving us right now. It’s not championship or bust.

“We’re just sticking together and having fun.”

With the season on the line for both teams, Swarthmore tied the game and took the lead on the foul line when Shafer made a pair to knot the game at 62-62 and then O’Dell sank two for the lead with 8:05 to play.

Shafer added two more free tosses before Visconti pulled up for a short jumper and DeAngelo scored on a driving layup for a 10-0 run and a 70-62 lead.

The 6-1 DeAngelo added two free throws for a 75-64 lead with 4:30 to play.

Ithaca responded with a 10-2 run on three 3-pointers to pull within 77-74 with 1:35 to play before Shafer powered in for a layup, grabbed a defensive rebound, was fouled and made both free throws for an 81-74 lead with a minute to go.

The Bombers drained another 3-pointer to cut Swarthmore’s lead to 82-78 with 31 seconds left, but the Garnet scored the final four points on two free throws by Colin Shaw, a sophomore, and a goal tending awarded to Ryan Ingram, a junior.

“I think at this point, we’ve seen every possible situation we can see,” O’Dell said tapping into their experience to withstand team’s best shot. “We had the guys show us before us and now we’re trying to show the younger guys.”

The Garnet, which never trailed and led by as many as 37 points in the opening round win over Brooklyn College, overcame an 8-point deficit with 7:30 left in the first half and was tied at 44-44 at the break when DeAngelo banked in a short jumper in the lane.

“We were concerned because they are a dangerous team, and in the first half they ran with us so offensively and then fortunately for us they got a little tired running their offense,” said Kosmalski. “Regardless, they had a great year.”

And Swarthmore can expect to give - and to receive  - another great effort on Friday.

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