Richmond wins first Atlantic 10 title

After seeing Richmond win its first Atlantic 10 title, coach Chris Mooney didn’t hide his emotions.

There were the big hugs for seniors Kevin Anderson and Justin Harper in the closing seconds of the 67-54 win over Dayton on Sunday. After the final horn, Mooney pumped his fists to acknowledge the Spider faithful in the crowd at Boardwalk Hall in this casino resort.

The real scene was in the locker room, fifth-year senior Dan Geriot said. That’s when Mooney let the tears flow.

”To see how far we’ve come, Coach talked about it after the game,” Geriot said. ”It was an emotional speech, how you have to really cherish what you have done. Be humble throughout, but to do what we did here is remarkable. We’ve come a long way.”

Geriot should know. He was part of an eight-win team his freshman year and he has seen the program grow from there. Last year, the Spiders got to the A10 title game and lost a heartbreaker to Temple, giving the Owls their third straight championship.

This year, Richmond (27-7) finished the job. Anderson capped a tournament MVP performance with 23 points and Harper added 18 as the third-seeded Spiders won their seventh straight game and earned consecutive NCAA tournament berths for the second time in school history.

”I just think we all came together at the right moment,” said Anderson, who scored 66 points over the three days. ”Our defense was fantastic this whole tournament, our energy was spectacular and it all came together at the right moment for us. It was great.”

It was much different feeling than a year ago. The Spiders brought down the boardwalk empire on Saturday with a 58-54 win over Temple.

”We went to the championship last year and came up short and we were not going to let that happen again,” Harper said. ”Everyone came out there and gave it their all. We all knew what we wanted to accomplish and this feels great.”

The loss all but ended ninth-seeded Dayton’s hopes for an NCAA bid. Despite upsetting top-seeded Xavier in the quarterfinals, the defending NIT champion Flyers (22-13) probably needed to win the tournament to get in the NCAA field.

”We have no chance for the NCAA tournament,” Dayton coach Brian Gregory said. ”We had to win. We had 22 wins and played a good schedule but we didn’t do a good enough job in league play to get a bid.”

Kevin Smith added 12 points and Darrius Garrett came off the bench when Harper got in foul trouble early in the second half and grabbed nine rebounds. The Spiders also came up big from long range, hitting 10 of 21.

Chris Johnson had 11 points for Dayton, which got off to a terrible start, fell behind by 15 points and never could get over the hump. Paul Williams and Chris Wright, who carried the Flyers in the early rounds, were limited to eight points apiece, taking only a combined 13 shots.

The story of the game and the tournament was Anderson, the league’s 2010 player of the year.

The senior point guard was 6 of 15 from the field, but every shot he hit seemed to be a big one. He scored 11 points in the first 15 minutes allowing the Spiders to build a 29-14 lead.

Dayton made its only serious run in the final 5 minutes of the first half and the opening few minutes of the second, drawing within 34-29 on a three-point play by Johnson.

However, Anderson nailed a 3-pointer shortly after Harper left with his third foul and Smith hit three free throws and a layup off a nice assist by fifth-year senior Dan Geriot to push the lead to 42-29.

The closest the Flyers got after that was 44-38 when Williams ended a personal six-point run with a jumper with 11:33 to go.

Of course, Anderson responded with a jumper and Smith made a layup off a nice feed by Harper and the Spiders were pretty much home free with their 14th win in 16 games.

Anderson, who said after the win on Saturday that the tournament would not be complete without a title, helped put the game away with five free throws in the final two minutes. He walked off the court into a huge hug from Mooney with 30.4 seconds to go as the fans in the half empty Boardwalk Hall — capacity 10,000 — chanted M-V-P.

”As far as him making every big shot, that’s a broken record at Richmond,” Mooney said. ”He has made so many big shots for us and so many big plays for us in his career, I could not overstate how much he has meant to our program.”

This was Richmond’s third shot at the league crown in its 10 years in the Atlantic 10. It lost in 2002 to Xavier and came up just short last season.

Dayton, which last went to the NCAA tournament in 2009, won its only league title in 2003. It lost the title game in 2004 to Xavier.