RICHMOND — The task for William and Mary basketball is as simple as it is elusive: Find a way.
That could mean any of a hundred things. Box out. Grab a rebound. Play tougher. Maintain focus. Execute. Rotate. Get stronger. Get fitter.
Any or all of the things that a program with a small margin for error must do to elevate itself from competitive to elite.
"What we have to do in the next seven months is to find that one degree, that one percent," Tribe coach Tony Shaver said late Saturday night after W&M's agonizingly close 72-67 loss to James Madison in the CAA tournament quarterfinals.
"We play everybody in this league, the top teams in this league, right down to the wire night after night after night, but we did not win enough of those ball games," Shaver said. "We've got to find a way to get that done. None of us wants to walk out of here feeling good with a close loss. That's not what we're here for."
William and Mary lost nine of 10 games to the CAA's top five teams, but was in every game. W&M lost in double-overtime and by four to regular-season champ Northeastern. The Tribe split with Towson, and squandered a late lead in regulation in which it lost in two overtimes. George Mason erased a double-figure deficit in Fairfax and won at the buzzer.
William and Mary (13-17) was plus-seven over 2012's dismal record, but in a down year for the conference, the Tribe left a lot on the table.
W&M lost three double-overtime games. The Tribe lost five games in which it led by double figures, including one to the same JMU team that ended its season.
Devon Moore and A.J. Davis did much of the damage Saturday night for JMU, which turned a seven-point deficit midway through the second half into a 66-58 lead.
Moore, the senior point guard, scored 20 points, handed out eight assists and at times was all but uncheckable. Davis, who salivated at the sight of William and Mary uniforms, also scored 20, including several spectacular plays. He totaled 83 points in three games versus the Tribe this season.
The Tribe also got blasted on the boards in the second half 22-8. JMU turned 11 offensive rebounds into 15 second-chance points, and wide-body Rayshawn Goins scored all 11 of his points in the second half.
"We were with them for a while, but they had a stretch where they started gaining on us," Tribe forward Tim Rusthoven said. "I think offensive rebounds were big. That's something we talked about in the locker room. It's something that hurt us at different times, and it bit us tonight."
Said Shaver: "The key to the game was, the last eight minutes, we didn't rebound the ball. You don't look any further than that, to be honest with you. We gave up 11 second-chance points, I think five (possessions) in a row we got defensive stops and they got rebounds and scored.
"They're long and athletic, they're more physical than we are inside. We've got to find a way to combat that."
William and Mary cannot match the collective athleticism of many teams. The Tribe must counter with experience, execution and general smarts.
It's not as if the Tribe is devoid athletically. Sophomore Marcus Thornton established himself as a bona fide handful and is a potential player of the year in the league. He scored 25 points Saturday night and missed what might have been the easiest shot he had — an open 3-pointer with seconds remaining that would have tied the game.
"It's not a good feeling," junior guard Brandon Britt said of the season's end, "but I definitely feel confident and positive about moving forward. Marcus is a great player. He'll be here for another two years. I have another year left. We've got a good freshman class. There's definitely positives, but like Coach (Shaver) said, we've got to find that extra degree, that extra effort to win these close games."
Indeed, the Tribe returns four starters — Thornton, Britt, the 6-9 Rusthoven and forward Kyle Gaillard — and several key reserves. W&M also signed a big, diverse recruiting class that should add depth and some athleticism.
Defensive improvement must be a priority. W&M was last in the CAA in defensive efficiency, according to numbers guru Ken Pomeroy, and 311th of 343 teams in the country. The Tribe also was eighth in the conference in turnover rate. Britt and Thornton, the primary ballhandlers, finished with more turnovers than assists.
"I think this team all year long has been a team that can score the ball," Shaver said. "We haven't been as good defensively as I'd like to be. It hurts me to say that. We haven't been good enough to get key stops in key situations."
Defense and rebounding are as much a product of desire and conditioning as pure athletic ability. The Tribe has much work ahead if it's going to compete in next year's new-look CAA.
"It's hard to think about the future at times like this," Rusthoven said, "but we feel confident that we're going to come back very strong and very good next year. I think we'll find that next level and be a great team. It's hard to think about now, but I do think we'll be at the top of the conference next year."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun