BALTIMORE — As his career at Elon University came to a close, a perhaps more merciful one than for players in years past, senior guard Austin Hamilton didn’t want to talk about any shortcomings, defeats or downfalls.
There were plenty of those during his four years on the men’s basketball team, even during this past season. Instead, the often-smiling Hamilton wanted to be happy.
“It’s tough, man,” Hamilton said after the Phoenix lost 72-59 to top-seeded College of William & Mary in a Colonial Athletic Association Tournament quarterfinal. “I just try to think of the positive stuff. I like to look at the positive things and kind of dwell on that.”
The loss to William & Mary was the last game for Hamilton and senior guard Kevin Blake. Fellow senior Ryan Winters walked off the court for the last time in January, punctured by a back injury that caused him to miss the last 13 games of his senior year.
So the Phoenix will move forward without their contributions, their work that’s turned in 69 wins, the most of any senior class in Elon’s Division I history.
“I’m really proud of the way our guys fought for the last three weeks,” said Elon coach Matt Matheny. “A huge credit goes to Austin Hamilton, Kevin Blake and Ryan Winters, who led us off the mat.”
But Elon isn’t at ground zero.
The Phoenix battled through injuries during its inaugural venture into the CAA, largely with the help of a talented freshman class whose benefits were recognized from the onset.
The Phoenix lost 11 of 12 games during one stretch in CAA play but was able to string it together to win four straight at the tail end of the season — the last being a 74-69 overtime victory against Towson University in the opening round of the CAA Tournament.
In its last game of the regular season, Elon dashed the University of North Carolina at Wilmington’s hopes of locking up the No. 1 seed in the CAA Tournament. The Phoenix upset the former conference leaders by 19 points in Alumni Gym in what would be the last home game for the departing seniors.
“I will think of this year a lot when it comes to how we responded to the adversity we went through,” Matheny said after the season-ending loss to William & Mary. “I said to them in the locker room after the game, ‘We will never forget this year. We will always talk about this team and what they did.’”
Elijah Bryant went on to earn CAA Rookie of the Year honors while averaging 14.2 points, 4.2 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game. Dmitri Thompson shot 46.9 percent while coming off the bench and averaging 18.8 minutes per game, minutes that produced 6.1 points per game via strong attacks to the rim and breakaway dunks.
Collin Luther and Jack Anton each provided fruitful minutes off the bench and proved capable of standing their ground.
In addition, Christian Hairston, who’ll be a junior next year, transitioned from being a wing player into a post role, where he had some struggles but held his own against teams like Duke University and UNCW.
And, Elon will regain sophomore guard Luke Eddy, who led the Phoenix in scoring at 13 points per game before tearing his ACL in late December.
“Luke Eddy is on target,” Matheny said. “He had successful surgery in late January. Every report is that he had very successful surgery and his rehab is going good.”
On the contrary, sophomore forward Brian Dawkins, who missed all season with a knee injury, isn’t in good shape.
“Brian Dawkins still has pain in his knee that we can’t dissipate,” Matheny said. “It’s subsiding a little bit. I’m concerned about him. It doesn’t hurt as much, but it’s still there.”
Elon’s left with juniors Tanner Samson and Tony Sabato as its lone scholarship seniors for next season. Samson started all 33 games this year, while Sabato started 28 of them.
But experience isn’t what will matter. Neither are known for their leadership or vocal motivation.
“Kevin, Austin and Ryan will carry the torch until they graduate,” Matheny said. “And then they’ll turn around and hand it to Tony and Tanner. But Tony and Tanner need to take over right now during spring workouts and lifting.”
A familiarity will be present in 2015-2016 for Elon, not only with its league opponents but its roster, too. There won’t be any reinventing the lineup or restructuring the plays.
Rather, the Phoenix can feel a level of cushion it didn’t have this year.