Before a raucous standing room-only crowd at Tarble Pavilion on Saturday evening, the Swarthmore College men’s basketball team (22-5) made history, defeating Dickinson College 68-64 to win the program’s first Centennial Conference championship.
With the win, the Garnet earned an automatic berth to the NCAA Division III Tournament, another program first, and were selected to host first and second round games. The Garnet will play the College of Staten Island on Friday from Tarble Pavilion at a time to be determined. In the other first round game from Tarble Pavilion, Christopher Newport will play Morrisville State. The winners of Friday's first round games will play on Saturday from Tarble Pavilion for the right to advance to the Sweet 16.
Cam Wiley ’19, a history major and political science and philosophy minor from Atlanta, Ga., scored a game-high 28 points and was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player. Zack Yonda ’18, an honor economics major from Berwyn, Pa, added 13 points.
The victory was hard-fought, as the Garnet rallied from an 11-point second half deficit to claim the crown. Thanks in part to 70 percent shooting from behind the arc in the first half, Dickinson built a 58-47 lead with 10:40 to play.
Down, but not out, the Garnet began to make a run. Chris Bourne ’17, an honors biology and Spanish major from Monmouth Junction, N.J., powered his way through the paint for a layup to begin the comeback. Wiley followed with a fast-break layup after a steal by Sam Lebryk '17, a political science major and peace & conflict studies minor from Falls Church, Va. Then it was Jim Lammers ’18, an engineering major and art history minor from San Antonio, Tex., who buried a corner three-pointer to make it a four-point game at 58-54. Swarthmore finally regained the lead with 6:15 to go. On the defensive end, Robbie Walsh ’18, an economics and mathematics major from Summit, N.J., rejected a Dickinson shot and Wiley recovered the rebound. Back on offense, Wiley drained the 3-pointer to put Swarthmore ahead 59-58.
According to Wiley, the Garnet never lost confidence despite the odds.
“Our greatest strength is our team spirit and unselfishness. The 11-point deficit surely put some pressure on us in the second half. I personally tried to ignore the score, and solely focus on getting the next defensive stop and executing offensively down the stretch. I knew that and that only would win us the game,” he says. “When adversity strikes, it's most important that we ‘tighten the fist’ and continue to support each other. If we allowed ourselves to fragment, we would've lost something that we, especially our seniors and coaches, have worked a long time to achieve.”
Dickinson evened the count at 59-59, but Yonda knocked down a three with 4:30 to go to keep the Red Devils at bay, making it 62-59. When Dickinson again pulled within one, Wiley provided the answer with a dagger three-pointer from the top of the key, hitting nothing but net.
In the final minutes, the Garnet sealed it with its defense and clutch foul shooting. Ahead by three, rim-protector Nate Shafer ’20 of McLean, Va., rejected a Dickinson three-point attempt from the corner with 1:30 to go, while Lebryk hit a pair of free-throws with: 19 seconds to play, making it 67-62. After a quick basket – its first in over 10 minutes of action - and a Garnet turnover, Dickinson had a chance to the tie the game with less than 10 to go.
But on the ensuing play, Walsh deflected the inbound pass, which was recovered by Yonda, who provided an insurance point from the free-throw line to seal the win. After the final buzzer sound and the teams shook hands, the Garnet celebrated at half court with a mob of student supporters.
For head coach Landry Kosmalski, who inherited a team that had won just three games in the season prior to his arrival, the championship validated a long rebuilding process.
“It was a painful process at times, but ultimately led to where we are today, ” he told City of Basketball Love’s Josh Verlin following the game. “It’s easier when someone’s done it before. I don’t think our guys will recognize it at all, but they may in 10 or 20 years, it takes a hell of a lot to actually start it, to start a tradition. And as I’m talking about it, I’m getting a little emotional. It’s obviously really a challenge and we’re the ones that did it. I’m very proud of our team for setting that standard.”
For Wiley, the enormity of the title is just beginning to sink in. “To cement our names in Swarthmore history, it’s truly a humbling feeling," he says. "I think the greatest part for me is that I get to enjoy this surreal experience with such a special group of guys, knowing that what we accomplished this season we did together.”