The Colonial Athletic Association tournament may have been short on fans, but the four-day event ended in a way organizers surely loved: with a frantic, late-game comeback and an iconic image of fans bounding onto the Baltimore Arena floor in celebration.
Conference officials hope that the final scene – of Delaware celebrating its first CAA tournament title and first NCAA tournament berth since 1999 -- will be replayed and endure in the minds of Baltimoreans. They want those final images to help sell the tournament when it returns to Baltimore next season.
"That's March madness," CAA commissioner Tom Yeager said as Delaware players and students leaped up and down following the top-seeded Blue Hens' 75-74 victory over third-seeded William and Mary.
The arena, which holds about 11,000 for basketball, had an announced 5,414 on Monday night. Overall, the four-day tournament – making its first Baltimore appearance – drew 19,065.
"At the end of the day, our success is we ran a great tournament, we have a team that's going to the NCAA championship that hasn't been there in a long while and they're excited out of their minds," Yeager said. "We'd love to have big crowds, but there isn't any criticism. It takes time to build it."
The CAA has a three-year deal with Baltimore and will begin considering whether to extend the arrangement after next year's tournament.
The conference hopes to sign a title sponsor for next season's tournament. The Maryland Lottery and Under Armour were among the regular sponsors. "There is an educational part," Yeager said. "We've had a lot of Baltimore business leaders that are here kind of seeing (the tournament)."
No matter which team won, the CAA had hoped fans would rush the floor. It all but choreographed the activity.
"We encourage you to come to the floor in an organized and safe manner," the public address announcer told the fans in the final minutes.
Sure enough, blue-clad fans rushed the floor, and a Delaware player tossed the ball high into the air.
Blue Hens players donned T-shirts reading, "Cut the Nets."
"We got down but we kept fighting," Delaware coach Monte Ross said. "I am privileged to have the honor to be associated with these young men. Go Blue Hens!"
Delaware has connections to Baltimore in starting guards Davon Usher (Digital Harbor) and Devon Saddler, who is from Aberdeen. Guard Jarvis Threatt, who is from Richmond, Va., was named the tournament's most outstanding player.
Delaware trailed 74-68 following a 3-pointer by William and Mary's Omar Prewitt with 1:20 left. Prewitt wagged his tongue in celebration as he ran back on defense.
The Blue Hens cut the deficit to 74-73 and took over following a timeout with 25 seconds left.
Delaware worked the ball inside to forward Carl Baptiste, who converted a one-hander in the lane with 12 seconds left to give the Blue Hens a 75-74 lead. Baptiste scored a team-leading 24 points.
William and Mary guard Marcus Thornton – an all-CAA performer who scored 22 points -- missed a jumper in the final seconds.
The matchup pitted teams with little or no NCAA tournament history. William and Mary has never been the tournament.
Threatt said Delaware would spent the evening celebrating but that the Blue Hens – the CAA's highest-scoring team – would quickly begin preparing for the NCAA tournament.
"We're not satisifed with just making it," he said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Paul Tierney contributed to this article.