With 8:04 remaining in W&M's game against Delaware, and the Tribe trailing by 8, freshman Marcus Thornton drove the lane, elevated, and cocked his arm back with malicious intent. Delaware's Jamelle Hagins, a 6'9", 240-pound sophomore who averages 2.6 blocks per game, rose to meet him. As the 6'3" Thornton's hammer dunk attempt crashed against the back of the rim and rebounded high in the air, I leapt from my couch with an audible gasp.
Thornton's missed dunk was notable not for the result, but for its sheer audacity. Never in my 23 years as a Tribe fan (dear, sweet God in heaven - 23 years?) have I ever seen a W&M player even contemplate such a play. It was at once thrilling for what it portends and sobering for what it illustrates about the Tribe's current state of affairs.
The CAA recognized Thornton as the conference Rookie of the Week after he averaged 19.3 points in a trio of Tribe games. He's now the team's leading scorer, tallying 15.5 points per game in CAA play, and 12.1 ppg in all games. He's without question the most athletic player I've ever seen in W&M's green and gold. And for a long stretch of this season, he and his teammates had no idea what to make of each other.
Throughout much of W&M's 2-11 start, we were baffled by the Tribe's poor shooting, confused by the lack of offensive efficiency they displayed. We fretted about Quinn McDowell's lack of aggression and Brandon Britt's erratic play and worried about injuries to Kyle Gaillard and JohnMark Ludwick. We enjoyed Thornton's explosiveness even as we shook our head as too many of his frequent wild forays into the lane yielded circus misses.
Then, four games ago, Tony Shaver inserted Thornton into the starting lineup. W&M only won one of those four, but the team that had lost its previous four contests against Division I opponents by an average of 29.8 points suddenly found confidence, beating James Madison before playing George Mason and Delaware close until the final minutes. Thornton's shot selection has improved along with his defense, and the entire team's body language. They're still a work in progress, giving up too many turnovers and not creating enough, while lacking a real inside presence, but a season that once appeared to be a complete loss offers a glimmer of hope. If nothing else, we get to witness the Education of Marcus Thornton, a story that'll give us a lot of reasons to cheer.
We'll measure the Wrens' progress tonight against one of the nation's lousiest teams. Towson set an NCAA record by losing its 35th consecutive game on Saturday, as ODU drummed the Tigers, 75-38. Drexel beat them, 60-27, in Towson's previous game. First-year coach Pat Skerry's team has lost all but 3 of their 16 games by double digits, and Skerry hasn't minced words in describing his team's inadequacies. It's bizarre to call this a must-win, but if the Tribe is going to salvage a decent conference season, tonight's game in Towson is critical. A win gives W&M a 2-3 record heading to Boston to take on a capable but beatable Northeastern team. A loss - an inexplicable, deflating, momentum-killing loss - may send the Tribe reeling.
In Shaver we trust. We're not losing this one.