By Joseph Santoliquito (@JSantoliquito)
SWARTHMORE — For a moment, everything seemed frozen in time, like a surreal haze enveloped Swarthmore’s Tarble Pavilion on Saturday night. Then the surge hit. The court storm swallowed everyone wearing garnet and white and while some were still in a state of disbelief, it did happen.
The Swarthmore Garnet completed an improbable comeback when senior forward Michael Caprise muscled his way to the basket with 8 seconds to play for the winning shot in Swarthmore’s 78-77 victory over Nichols in the NCAA Division III Tournament Elite Eight.
The No. 7 seed Garnet (28-3) will now face Christopher Newport in the Division III Final Four on Thursday at the Allen County War Memorial Coliseum in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
It’s the second time in Swarthmore history that the Garnet have advanced to the Final Four.
Swarthmore coach Landry Kosmalski holds up the net after Saturday's Elite Eight win over Nichols. (Photo: Joseph Santoliquito/CoBL)
For 39 minutes and 52 seconds on Saturday night, it didn’t look like the Garnet would be going anywhere.
Before Caprise’s game-winning shot, the Garnet’s last lead was 20-18 on, ironically, a Caprise layup with 12:50 left in the first half. Otherwise, the Bison were in sound control of the game until the last 30 seconds.
“Obviously, a classic, involving two good teams, and I think Nichols outplayed us for a lot of the game,” Garnet coach Landry Kosmalski admitted. “Especially in the first half, getting loose balls and rebounds, beating us in transition. I thought that they were so much better than when I saw them (Friday) night. Tonight, they were on a mission and it took a while to match their intensity.
“It wasn’t pretty but we stayed with it; stayed with it until the bitter end. We didn’t plan it that way, but there is a lot to be said for our guys sticking with it under trying circumstances.”
Nichols confused the Garnet with their zone. The unusual zone morphed into a match-up man look sometimes, but it caught Swarthmore off guard. In the first half, the Garnet’s star player, junior guard Vinny DeAngelo, had more turnovers (2) than he did points (0).
With 8:15 to play, Nichols held a 68-57 lead, its largest of the game, on a Tavon Jones’ layup, and it appeared the Garnet’s season would sink. But Swarthmore kept finding a way to scratch back. A George Visconti layup with 2:47 to play drew the Garnet to within 72-68, though that was answered slightly more than a minute later by Tilquan Rucker’s driving layup.
After Nichols’ Quincy Ferebee nailed a pair of free throws with 1:27 remaining, it appeared then that the Garnet’s magical season would be derailed. Trailing 76-71, Visconti came through again with another clutch jumper with 1:03 left, pulling the Garnet to within striking distance at 76-73. A crucial moment came when Nichols’ Matthew Alectus missed the back end of a one-and-one, opening the door for Swarthmore to creep through.
Down now 77-73, Visconti struck again, burying a trey from the corner, and what looked impossible a minute ago became very tangible, when the Bison turned the ball over on their next trip down the court.
It set the stage for Caprise to be the hero on a play the Garnet had practiced throughout the season —yet never ran in a game, until Saturday night with their season hanging in the balance.
“We kept talking in the huddle and reminding each other that there was still a lot of game left,” DeAngelo said. “Their zone took us out of a lot of stuff and made us uncomfortable, and Landry made some really good adjustments getting the ball inside. We saw something inside.
“We practiced that play all year and we didn’t run it once until tonight. We knew they were jumping eyes, and Mike set a screen for George (Visconti) to curl. One (defender) went with George, and he set a screen for me to go to the corner and two guys jumped on me. Colin (Shaw) made a great pass to Mike, and he made a great play and a great shot and we’re moving on.
“On a play we never ran before.”
Nichols didn’t call timeout and instead ran back down court, only to lose control of the ball—and the game.
That’s what lit the explosion.
The loss took an emotional toll on Nichols’ head coach Brock Erickson, who did a very good job in guiding the Bison to a 26-6 record, and a 20-game winning streak before the Garnet ended it.
“Hats off the Swarthmore, they stuck with it, and stuck with it, and we were in control for a lot of the game,” Erickson said. “Their kids are tough and resilient, and they played really, really hard. The last four minutes, we made only one basket on a put-back and we missed a couple of big free throws down the stretch.
“DeAngelo was obviously one of the keys, because he’s such a great player. He is the best guard I’ve seen in my two years here at Nichols, and our guys knew it. We wanted to force him into tough contested twos and it’s why we played zone. Landry is a great coach, but we had a great game plan that we executed for about 39 minutes and 30 seconds. I let my guys down. It was my coaching that lost the game for us tonight. I should have gotten these kids to the Final Four and I didn’t.”
Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning sportswriter based in the Philadelphia area who began writing for CoBL in 2021 and is the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be followed on Twitter here.