SALEM, VA. –
Andy McNulty stepped out of the glossy shell of United Airlines’ fuselage and onto the steps descending to the Roanoke runway. Garbed in a sleeved white ‘Springfield College Basketball’ tee, he carried a jet black Under Armour backpack of essentials while clutching a plastic bag complemented with snacks and a hometown classic Frigos sandwich. Beneath the shadow of his Division III Final Four cap, the Pride’s tri-captain briefly stole a glimpse of the Blue Ridge Mountains through the Virginia wind.
For the first time in Springfield College men’s basketball history, the Birthplace Boys had made it to the peak of Division III competition.
The Final Four.
McNulty took in the southern air. Stepping on Virginia soil was a feat he knew his team had the ability to achieve. Though he remembers, clearly, the polar opposite notion of feeling alive and sure. Just three weeks earlier, McNulty had found himself praying for another opportunity to help prove his team’s capabilities.
22 days ago, he sat in the Pride’s locker room beneath the depths of Blake Arena, fingers pressed against his face. Springfield rivals Babson and MIT were preparing to battle for the opportunity to take on WPI in the NEWMAC finals. On the Pride’s home floor. Springfield had fallen to the Engineers 84-80 as the conference’s No. 1 seed.
McNulty’s mind replayed the game’s deciding play, over and over again:
Overtime. 83-80 Pride. 17 seconds. One timeout remaining. Springfield forward Heath Post ripped down the board and put the ball into McNulty’s possession. He held it, and held it before retreating to the corner. 8 seconds left. He turned and fired a pass into the paint for Post. But Reid Walker was there for the interception.
Walker just stood there, idley, and watched the game travel into his hands.
Then Walker took off the other way, with the Pride’s chance at an automatic bid to the Dance. It could have been the final play of McNulty’s career as a member of the Pride.
In the days leading up to the NCAA Selection Show, McNulty hoped for a continuation of his senior season. “[WPI] was a disappointing loss,” he said. “I was just praying that we’d get a bid.”
McNulty sat in Blake Arena’s conference room, two days following the NEWMAC semi-final defeat, biting his nails as the projector emitted the blank bracket set to reveal the final 64 teams.
“Him and I were feeling pretty similar. We couldn’t believe it, we were in limbo,” said senior forward Brandon Eckles. “[Andy] really took it to heart because he’s a competitor, he took it hard and you could see it on his face. He was just crushed. And so was I. It was hard to see.”
“And the final team, in this year’s field, is Springfield.”
McNulty’s cry of jubilation blended with his teammates as he pumped his fists, quaking them below his chest. Beside him was Jake Ross. McNulty turned to him, and was immediately embraced by the 6’4 sophomore, the man he helped bring to Springfield after dueling him as a rival in high school.
The Boys were still alive.
“It was nerve racking for the whole portion [of Selection Day],” said McNulty. “The fact that it came down to the last spot, and we got in, it was a room full of excitement. We were relieved, just happy that we got to practice another day. We played with fire and didn’t get burned. [From there] we had the mentality of taking it game by game, surviving and advancing as they’d say.”
Springfield assistant coach, Sean Martin was in his senior season as the starting point guard for the Pride when he first met the acquaintance of Andy McNulty. The soon-to-be alum of West Springfield basketball was on a recruiting visit. For two hours that day, Martin gave it his all to make the then 17 year old’s life on the court a living hell and was left impressed. Martin was unable to break McNulty.
“Andy was a great competitor right away,” said Martin. “I played as hard as I could against him. I was as physical as I could be, didn’t give him any space to shoot. I didn’t let him have anything easy and he just kept coming right back at me, every single time I went at him. I had immediate respect for him in that regard. He’s always got a competitive mindset, no matter what he’s doing he wants to prove himself and battle to win and you could see where it’s taken us.”
Eckles roomed with McNulty in their freshman year with the Pride. When they were still high school seniors, the two first faced off in a Dana Gym pickup game while on a campus visit.
“I knew right away he was a great player,” said Eckles. “Quick as hell, played like a bullet out of a gun. He’s a very smart player, him being the point guard steadies the ship sometimes and really puts us in the right position to win.”
At the beginning of last season, McNulty began to show a noticeable ability of performing in the clutch. It was a preseason home scrimmage against Brandeis. In the waning seconds of the exhibition, McNulty took the ball in on the inbound and started to dribble. He drove the ball, straight at the Judges to the top of the key, and after a couple of dribbles, hit his defender with a quick crossover before pulling up from beyond the arc as time expired.
Thud. Thud. Thud. Thud-Thud. Swish.
A foreshadow of what was to come.
“He’s just not afraid of that shot,” Eckles recalled thinking to himself. “He’s just not too big for the moment.”
Swarthmore, Pa. March 9. Seventh matchup of the Sweet 16. Springfield vs. Hamilton. 3.6 seconds to go, with the Pride down 81-78.
Freshman Spencer Kendall’s final attempt at the free throw line to bury the Pride’s season rattled the right side of the rim before popping back skyward.
Heath Post stood there, idley, and watched the game travel into his hands.
He dished the missed free throw attempt to McNulty, who off a crow hop, had already started down the floor. As Post’s pass sailed into his hands, McNulty briefly locked eyes with Kendall as he sent his first dribble toward the floor.
Kendall raised his hands to defend, and McNulty lowered his gaze.
The 5’10 guard from West Springfield blew past the Hamilton forward.
One second remaining.
McNulty leapt forward from a range deep by even NBA standards. He cocked the ball to his sweat drenched forehead while the Continentals’ Kena Gilmour lunged to contest the last second heave. McNulty’s shot sailed well beyond the sophomore’s finger tips. The buzzer sounded as the ball rolled around the rim before being caught by the front of the net. Tie game at 81. On to overtime.
McNulty shot the Springfield crowd a look of satisfaction as Pride forward Cam Earle gave him a shove and a dap. As he embraced with Ben Diamond and Trey Witter, the senior stared down his team’s bench, blue eyes filled with a fire of hope that would help carry the Pride to a 92-90 win over Hamilton and to an eventual ticket to Virginia. In one flick of the wrist, McNulty had confirmed his team’s belief of what he could do, through measure of converting the most iconic field goal in Springfield men’s hoops history.
“Andy loves playing basketball so much, that he’ll do whatever it takes to win the game,” said Eckles. “When the shot went in, you could just see the smirk on his face. He was so matter-of-fact about it. After he hit that shot, he was just happy we were still playing. Some people would get caught up and go all Hollywood, they’ll say, ‘yeah I hit the buzzer beater.’ But he’s not really like that. He was happy he was still playing with that maroon jersey on.”
McNulty sat in the media room of the Salem Civic Center on Friday, keeping a gaze locked to the podium’s white table cloth. To his left was head coach Charlie Brock and Jake Ross. McNulty had scored 17 points on 5-10 shooting from three. Every ounce of his effort was given. But that didn’t matter to him. Springfield had fallen to Nebraska Wesleyan 90-78 in the national semifinals. What dominated his mind in the moment was the reality that he could no longer play for the Springfield Pride.
“I’m so thankful for this program,” McNulty said, his voice filled with a gratitude damp with sadness and reflection. “All I wanted to do these four years was leave a legacy. This run was pretty special. We left some fingerprints and I hope these young guys take [what we did this year] and keep it going.”
But he, along with his team, will not be remembered as a man, nor a group of men, who fell short of greatness. One week prior to the season end, and a day removed from hitting “The Shot” against Hamilton to keep the Pride’s tournament campaign alive, McNulty, with a piece of victory net between his teeth, held the sectional trophy at his left side, while using his right hand to flash four fingers at the camera. They had made it to the Final Four.
McNulty walked out of the Civic Center’s press room alongside his coach and sophomore wing one last time. It was time to go home.
Though behind the point guard as he exited the arena with his team, upon the dark royal blue scoreboard, was a phrase that expressed who he was for having played in the building.
CHAMPIONS PLAY HERE.