The pain was palpable after the Elon University men’s basketball team’s trip to the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) Tournament ended after a single game.

The Phoenix fell apart down the stretch, watching the College of William & Mary turn a six-point deficit with five minutes left into a 71-66 win Saturday afternoon in North Charleston. Disappointment was the main feeling for head coach Matt Matheny after the game.

“When you pour your heart into something and commit to it like our guys have done at the level they’ve done it, and you play as hard as they do and you come up short, it’s heartbreaking.,” Matheny said. “There’s a lot of love in our locker room and that’s why the guys have had the success they’ve had this year in terms of elevating our program.”

Redshirt junior forward Brian Dawkins and the Phoenix had plans to stay in Charleston until Monday night, which only compounded the feeling of frustration.

“It’s disappointing for our seniors, for the guys that have worked so hard for the last four years to put themselves into position to hopefully go on a run,” Dawkins said. “I think it’s even more disappointing knowing that we were right there with our team. We felt we had a chance to win this game and we felt could’ve potentially beaten whoever we had to play going forward and potentially could’ve made a run to play for a championship.”

While Saturday will sit in Elon’s throat like a pill that can’t be swallowed for months, the Phoenix already looking ahead to next season, with sophomore forward Tyler Seibring ready to start preparing immediately.

“We’ve got to look toward next year,” Seibring said. “We appreciate all the work that seniors did for us, and we love those guys. Starting now, we’re getting ready for next season.”

And, when Elon truly looks at its chances next season, the Phoenix is likely to find a lot in its favor. Elon’s entire starting five is set to return, with sophomore guards Dainan Swoope and Steven Santa Ana likely to line up next to classmate Seibring, and upperclassmen Dawkins and junior guard Dmitri Thompson.

Elon will have one of the most experienced teams in the conference, as seven of the 14 non-Elon players on the all-conference teams were seniors this year, including two from the Tribe and two from conference champion University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

The Phoenix has a variety of players who have stepped up throughout the year, much to the chagrin of opposing coaches. William & Mary head coach Tony Shaver felt that way about Dawkins, who led Elon with 19 points Saturday and found space because of Elon’s weapons around him.

“He was terrific in the first half, and our post defense wasn’t good — we let him catch it on the block,” Shaver said. “Second half, he caught it two, three, four steps off the lane, where we can dig a little bit, but we don’t want to dig a lot on their posts because they have such great shooters surrounding them. Dawkins was really good tonight.”

It became clear through the league’s head coaches how much they felt Elon had improved in its third year in the CAA. For a team picked to finish eighth, Matheny felt the Phoenix earned a little street credit with its 10-8, tied-for-fourth regular season finish. But only one selection to the All-CAA teams — Seibring’s second-team nod — showed him that there is still room to grow.

“We’re new,” Matheny said. “We’re still the new kid. If we want something, you’ve got to earn it. We’re starting to earn a little bit of respect, but we’ve got a long way to go.”

As the program heads into its final year in Alumni Gym and prepares to move into the Schar Center, it’s clear that next year will be the time to capitalize on the talent Elon has and the relative uncertainty around the conference.

Please note All comments are eligible for publication by ENN.