Written by: Ryan Cunningham
It was four years ago when Davidson entered the Atlantic 10. They were picked to finish dead last in the conference. They ended up finishing 14-4 and earning the regular season championship outright. The Wildcats entered the A-10 tournament in Brooklyn being the heavy favorite. In their quarterfinal matchup, they won in dramatic fashion. Tyler Kalinoski hit a buzzer beater to bring them to the semifinals, where they met VCU. Davidson had most recently beat VCU by 27, so the Rams were going to come out looking for revenge. They did just that, beating the Wildcats by 20. A day later, Davidson received their first at-large bid in program history. They got a #10 seed playing Iowa in Seattle. Iowa beat Davidson to end a historic season. Many people would say the next two seasons were down years for Bob McKillop’s standards. In the 2015-16 A-10 tournament, Davidson entered as a #6 seed. They took care of La Salle in the second round, beat the #3 seed St. Bonaventure in overtime in the quarterfinals, but then lost to VCU in the semifinals. When the 2016-17 season came around, expectations were high. They were picked to finish fourth. Davidson entered the tournament as a #9 seed, defying expectations, but made a run. They ended La Salle’s season for a third year in a row. In the quarterfinals, they matched up with the the #1 seed Dayton. Davidson jumped out to a hot start in this one, leading 35-19 at one-point late in the first half. Very late in the second half, a made three pointer by Charles Cooke gave Dayton a three-point lead. This was the point Jack Gibbs took over. Jon Axel Gudmundsson, set up by Gibbs, hit a three from the right wing to tie the game. Davidson’s next possession, Gibbs hit a step-back three in the left corner to take the lead with 51 seconds left. Scoochie Smith for Dayton made a dunk at the other end, then Gibbs came down and hit a step-back three and the foul, giving them the win over the one seed. They lost the next day to Rhode Island in the semifinals. Davidson emptied their gas tanks against Dayton and had nothing left against URI.
Now let’s get to this season. Starting this year, there were some questions. Their non-conference season was tough. They went to Virginia, played North Carolina and went to the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii where they played New Mexico State. They also went to Nevada. That’s a heck of a lot of travel and sometimes it takes a toll on the players. They entered the conference season with a record of 5-6. Their first conference game was at Richmond, where they lost a tough one. The next game was the turning point for the season. They hosted Saint Louis on January third. Davidson was down 33-22 at half. They looked dead. They came out of the locker room determined. I remember watching this game and it looked like a different team. They looked deflated in the first half, especially after some of the crazy shots Saint Louis was hitting. Davidson won the game by three. This was the first win of a five game winning streak. They won each game by an average of 19.4 points. Davidson went on to win eight of their last ten games. One of those losses was at St. Bonaventure by a score of 117-113, a game that went into triple overtime. Kellan Grady and Peyton Aldridge both had career-highs of 39 and 45 points respectively. The final game of the regular season was home against Rhode Island. Jon Axel Gudmundsson hit a game-winning layup with almost no time remaining to lift Davidson over the 17th best team in the country. Davidson was the hottest team in the conference heading to the Atlantic 10 tournament in Washington D.C.
Because Davidson had a double-bye, they didn’t play until Friday in the quarterfinals. They beat #6 seed Saint Louis by a score of 78-60 to advance to the semifinals. Aldridge had 35 points and 7 rebounds. Grady added 19 points. Davidson got off to a hot start in this one, leading the Billikens by 18 at half. They hit 11 threes and shot 55% from the field. The semifinals was a rematch of the triple-overtime game from a few weeks ago. Davidson beat St. Bonaventure 82-70 in what was a very entertaining game. Aldridge and Grady had 24 and 23 points respectively. During the final stretch of the season, this duo started to really click. It became one of the deadliest combos in the country. The X-factor in this game was Rusty Reigel. The 6’2″ senior put up 10 points, 8 assists and 0 turnovers. In my opinion, it was the best game he’s ever played in a Davidson uniform, and it came at the right time. Oskar Michelsen hit three threes. He looked extremely confident shooting the ball. Will Magarity gave a big contribution off the bench, putting up 7 points. Gudmundsson, along with Reigel had 8 assists and 0 turnovers. As a team, Davidson had 23 assists and 5 turnovers. The Wildcats’ first 14 shots from the field were all three point attempts. They hit seven of them. Body movement and ball movement paved the way for great looks in the first half. Davidson had a six point lead at the half. With 3:54 left in the game, Davidson had a 67-63 lead. The next Wildcats possession, Aldridge hit a huge three to really put the Bonnies away. Davidson then went on an 11-2 run to bury them. Click HERE for highlights.
Next for Davidson came the finals against the #1 seed Rhode Island. The Rams were #25 in the country at the time. The Wildcats had a great start to the game, leading 6-0. It went back and forth all the way to the end of the half. Rhode Island led 33-32. Davidson came out of the locker room on fire. Kellan Grady started out the half with two threes of his own, giving the Wildcats a five-point lead. A Peyton Aldridge free throw with 10:12 to go gave Davidson their biggest lead of the game at eight. Rhode Island took the lead with 4:12 remaining with a jumper by Jeff Dowtin. A few possessions later, E.C. Matthews of Rhode Island hit a three to make it a four-point lead. Free throws by Gudmundsson cut the deficit to two. A foul by Oskar Michelsen sent Cyril Langevine to the line to shoot two. He made the first, but missed the second. It was a three-point lead for Rhode Island at this point. With 1:49 remaining, Kellan Grady got fouled by Dowtin, sending him to the line. He hit both free throws making it a one point game. The next possession, Matthews turned the ball over, giving Davidson possession. KiShawn Pritchett brought the ball up the court, swung it to Aldridge, who then gave it to Grady. Davidson runs this play a lot, where they isolate Grady on the left wing. Grady drove baseline, threw up a floater, and swooshed it. This gave Davidson the lead by one (58-57) with 1:12 remaining. Next possession, Jared Terrell missed a contested layup for Rhode Island, rebounded by Pritchett. Grady came down the floor, drove to the hoop, but got denied by Langevine. Rhode Island called a timeout to set something up. Stanford Robinson shot the ball from the right baseline and missed, but Davidson tipped the ball out of bounds giving Rhode Island another chance to win the game. There were 10.8 seconds left at this point. Matthews got the ball and looked to drive, but Grady moved his feet beautifully to stay in front of him forcing him to pass to Dowtin, who threw up an air ball that went out of bounds. It was Davidson ball with 0.9 seconds remaining. Aldridge, who was a high school quarterback, threw the ball to the other side of the court and time ran out. Davidson beat Rhode Island by a score of 58-57 to win their first conference tournament championship as a member of the Atlantic 10. Grady had 17 points and Aldridge had 13 to lead Davidson. Pritchett hit three threes. Michelsen had 8 points. Gudmundsson did everything. He had 9 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 steals. Reigel, Magarity and Michelsen played astounding defense in this one. Click HERE for highlights. After the game, Davidson got quite the surprise, a Facetime call from Stephen Curry. Associate head coach, Matt McKillop received the call shortly after the game ended while the celebration was still happening on the court. Curry also was a bit excited that Davidson’s going to the dance.
Peyton Aldridge was named the Championship’s Most Outstanding Player, averaging 24 points over the course of the weekend. Both Aldridge and Grady were named to the all-tournament team as well. Rusty Reigel, a senior captain, deserves a ton of credit for his leadership and toughness in this tournament. As Bob McKillop says, “Rusty wears Davidson on his heart.” Reigel grew up in Charlotte and has grown up with Davidson. Both his dad and his brother played at Davidson. His older brother Will played on the 2008 Elite 8 team that was led by Stephen Curry. Will is now an assistant coach on the staff. Rusty said after the game, “We won, and we’re going dancing, and I couldn’t be happier for my guys and for everybody. I just can’t wait to get there next week.” When asked about the last possession, Reigel was a bit nervous. “Pretty stressful. I was freaking out a little bit.” Grady, who shut down Matthews on the last possession, was asked the same question and replied, “Your heart kind of drops for a second. You realize you’ve got to guard for 10 more seconds. But we did another unbelievable job.”
Dan Hurley, the head coach for Rhode Island, had nothing but positive things to say about Davidson. “Whoever is going to draw them is not going to want to see their name next to them.” That team who saw Davidson’s name next to them is Kentucky. Davidson will travel to Boise, Idaho this Thursday at 7:10PM and take on the Kentucky Wildcats. Check back tomorrow for a preview of all the Atlantic 10 teams who made the NCAA tournament.