Shenandoah's men's basketball team ended its season in heartbreaking fashion on Tuesday in the first round of the Old Dominion Athletic Conference tournament.
The Hornets -- the 10th seed in this year's 12-team field -- led for most of the second half against No. 7 Bridgewater, only to see the Eagles rally from a seven-point deficit in the final three and a half minutes to force overtime. From there, Bridgewater went on to win the game, 93-87.
It always stings to lose the final game of the season, and the fact that the Hornets were so close to making their first trip to Salem Civic Center for the quarterfinal round of the ODAC tournament likely made the loss a little tougher to swallow for SU.
But for a program that is looking to regain respectability after several seasons of very sub-par basketball, Shenandoah's 2013-14 campaign was far from a disaster.
The Hornets finished the season with an overall record of 12-14, including a 4-12 mark in conference play. SU would certainly have liked a little stronger showing in ODAC play in its second year in the conference, and losing 11 of its final 13 games isn't all that encouraging, but this year was easily the best of head coach Rob Pryor's three seasons at the helm at Shenandoah and was a step in the right direction.
In Pryor's first two seasons as head coach, the Hornets managed a combined nine wins. Last season -- Shenandoah's first as a member of the ODAC -- the Hornets were 4-22 and finished the year 1-15 in conference play, and even that win was awarded to SU after Bridgewater was forced to vacate four late-season wins, one of which came against the Hornets.
Until this year Shenandoah hadn't won more than two conference games in a season since 2009-10, when the Hornets went 7-5 in the USA South during an 11-16 campaign, and SU nearly won as many games this season as it had in the previous three combined (13).
The Hornets -- who were picked to finish last in the ODAC preseason poll -- finished above both Washington and Lee (3-13 in ODAC) and Emory & Henry (2-14) in the conference this season, as SU combined to go 3-0 against those two schools. Shenandoah also split a two-game regular season series with Roanoke, which finished just ahead of the Hornets in the conference with a 6-10 ODAC record.
Shenandoah struggled against the rest of the conference -- which currently features eight plus-.500 teams -- even though the Hornets avoided two-game sets with the ODAC's top three teams in Randolph-Macon (the regular-season champ), Virginia Wesleyan and Guilford. SU played those three schools just once each.
But four conference wins is better than no conference wins, and now it's up to Pryor and the Hornets to continue building on the foundation that they have slowly been laying the last three seasons.
Shenandoah should return plenty of talent next year, although the loss of senior guard Avery Green will be a tough one to overcome.
Green, who was named a first-team all-ODAC selection on Thursday, led the conference in scoring with a 24.2 points-per-game average, a mark that also currently ranks sixth in the nation in Division III. Green cracked the 30-point mark four times this season -- including a 30-point effort in Tuesday's loss -- and started all 26 games this season after missing most of last year with a knee injury.
Green is one of three Hornets seniors on this year's squad, as Pryor will also have to replace 6-foot-7 center Kevin Lescaint (4.0 points and 5.1 rebounds per game) and guard Bryce Mitchell (4.6 points per game).
But the Hornets' second leading scorer, junior guard Jared Carithers (14.5 points per game), should be back next year to provide a steady stream of points for Shenandoah, and forwards Jimi Starks (7.0 points/game) and Xavier Alston (4.9 points/game) should return for SU as well. A large group of freshmen and sophomores should also provide Pryor with plenty of options in the coming years.
Rebuilding a struggling program is never easy, but Shenandoah may have just caught a glimpse this season of better things to come.
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @BradFauberNVD