It had been fifteen years since the University of Delaware men’s basketball program had last punched its ticket for the NCAA Tournament, but after seeing how the Hens’ CAA Championship-clinching win unfolded on Monday night at the Baltimore Arena, it certainly appeared worth the wait for the Blue Hens.  Delaware erased a six-point deficit in a frantic final 80 seconds to top William & Mary, 75-74, and capture its first ever CAA title.
 
The Hens led by as many as 12 points early in the second half, but saw William & Mary wrestle away control of the game by shooting 55 percent from the field over the final 20 minutes.  Late in the contest the Tribe uncorked a 12-3 run that culminated in Omar Prewitt’s corner-three with 1:20 to go that put William & Mary up six and seemed to sink UD’s hopes.
 
We should have known better than to count this team out.
 
Delaware held William & Mary scoreless the rest of the way, and never showed even an ounce of panic.  The Hens cut the deficit to four when Devon Saddler penetrated, drew a foul and knocked down a pair of free throws.  Then the Tribe did Delaware a huge favor by missing the front end of a one-and-one.  Jarvis Threatt went the other way, hit a short jumper and drew a foul.  The old-fashioned three-point play got UD back to within a single point with still 51 seconds left on the clock.  That gave Monte Ross the luxury to instruct his team to dig in for a stop rather than to foul defensively, which they did successfully when Marcus Thornton missed a contested 19-foot jumper. 
 
After grabbing the rebound, the Hens called time out and Ross had the biggest decision of his coaching career staring him directly in the face.
 
“I really trust these guys and I let them make suggestions to me and I’ll listen to them and get a feel for them,” Ross said afterward.  “My biggest thing when I called the timeout with 25 seconds remaining was ‘what play are we going to run for Devon Saddler?’ because he’s a senior and he’s been through it.  But the first thing he said was get the ball inside to [Carl Baptiste].”
 
The all-time leading scorer in program history, a guy who had never met a shot he didn’t want to take early in his career at Delaware, was advising his head coach to give the ball to someone else.  And he was right.
 
All night long Baptiste had been abusing the Tribe inside the paint.  The senior transfer from St. Joe’s had 22 points entering Delaware’s final possession on just 10 shots from the field.  Saddler knew it, and he made sure his coach knew how he felt as well.
 
“Carl had it going all game,” Saddler said.  “I knew once he got it in the post that they couldn’t stop him down low.  I’m not a selfish player so I was like, ‘Carl’s got it going right now Coach, so why don’t we just run a play for him and get the ball inside.’”
 
Ross had no choice but to initially draw up the play for Saddler.  He was the guy that had gotten his team to that point.  This was his moment.  For him to offer it to a teammate for the good of the group speaks volumes to what makes this particular Delaware team special.
 
“I can’t say enough about these guys,” Ross said.  “About Devon making that suggestion with a championship on the line—for him to have the faith that he has in Carl Baptiste.  And the funny thing is you wouldn’t know it in our walk-throughs and stuff, they give Carl such a hard time.  I think Carl’s just going to walk out of there one of these times.  But that’s just the love that they have for one another as teammates, as friends, as the whole kit and caboodle.”
 
Baptiste may take some ribbing on the practice court, but he has everyone’s respect when it matters.  So no one was surprised when he battled for position on the block, made the catch, fought his way through traffic and made the layup that sent Delaware dancing for the first time since 1999.  After the game, though, all the emotional center wanted to talk about was the possession after his go-ahead bucket.
 
“We’d rather play defense for the last play than to have the ball for the last play,” Baptiste said.  “That’s what we’re built on.  I’ve said it from Day One, so I had no doubt that we’d get that stop.”
 
Oh yeah, William & Mary still had one last chance to ruin Delaware’s night. 
 
The Tribe put the ball in the hands of their best player and let him go to work.  Delaware flustered Thornton with a team-effort defensively.  Running multiple bodies his direction, UD forced Thornton to dribble away from the basket near half court with just five seconds remaining.  In an act of desperation, he took two hard dribbles toward the right wing and somehow got himself free enough to hoist a 20-footer for the win at the buzzer.  When it clanged off the rim, the celebration—which the First State had waited a long time for—finally began.
 
“It speaks to our administration,” Ross said about winning a championship in his eighth season at Delaware.  “They gave us time to build it.  They said, ‘look we’re going to give you time, but we want something that’s built, that’s sustainable.’  And the way that we’ve been the last few years and then to get to this point, I hope we’ve paid them back a little bit.”
 
Ross also explained how it all finally came together after years of toiling by him and his coaching staff to establish the kind of program he had envisioned.
 
“This thing is all [built] on promises.  I promised Devon when I recruited him, I promised Jarvis, I promised Baptiste when he transferred in, that we were going to get to this point.  Their faith in me makes me have a lot of faith in them now.”
 
That universal faith was rewarded with an epic party in Baltimore on Monday night.  Now Ross and his team can celebrate as they wait comfortably to see their name pop up in the brackets on Selection Sunday.