Wagner eyes birth of NCAA Tournament after rallying to injured leader
Bashir Mason said he couldn’t help it. Wagner’s trainer started to tear up, emotions getting the better of him.
On the other end of the call was Elijah Ford, Wagner’s standout primary guard who had just informed Mason that his season — and presumably his college career — was over.
A visit to the doctor had confirmed everyone’s worst fears: Ford had in fact torn the ACL and lateral meniscus of his right knee during a game on Feb. 5. But after telling Mason, Ford wouldn’t let his trainer crumble any further.
“We don’t have time for that, coach,” Ford told him, “Let’s save the emotions for after we win.”
Ford remained positive, refusing to allow anyone to see him show any disappointment. Wagner had a championship to win and Ford wasn’t going to let his injury, devastating as it was, stop him. He didn’t feel sorry for himself, nor did the Newark native want anyone else to. The reason for his decision to return for a fifth year, the reason the entire Seahawks team remained intact, was to reach the NCAA Tournament.
“I know it’s bigger than me right now,” Ford, 23, said Friday, as second-seeded Wagner prepared to host third-seeded LIU on Saturday night in the semi-finals. NEC tournament final. “I’m not going to worry about that until we get our jewelry back.”
The 6-foot-5 winger has become an honorary assistant coach and spirited cheerleader since his injury. Before games, he sends a motivational text message to the team’s group chat. He’s as active as anyone on the bench, looking to inspire in every way possible. He offers instructions to individual players at his position during practices. He remained as locked up as if he were still a player.
In a quarterfinal rout of St. Francis of Pennsylvania on Wednesday, Wagner (20-5) started the second half slow, allowing the Red Flash to score the first seven points in the stanza. A furious bricklayer called timeout. Before tearing the players into the group, Ford waved him off. Wagner still held a 15-point lead.
“It took me back to timing, preparation, everything we talk about and how I want these guys to play,” Mason said. “I can’t be the caucus guy who loses, and he did that for me during the game. It’s something I’ve been doing for him since we met.
“The things he communicates to me are things he learned from me. For me, it’s breathtaking. I taught this guy something that will stay with him for the rest of his life.
Mason made sure no one forgot about Ford. In the first game after his injury, the coach wore his No. 4 shirt. Ford considered wearing it himself for the game, but only decided after the warning. Then he saw the jersey worn by Mason, who has worn it in every game since.
“He’s got a smile that can light up a room already,” said Mason, who is in his 10th season with Wagner. “When I took out the jersey, [he had] one of the biggest smiles [I’ve seen]an enormous emotion crossed our team.
Said Ford: “It just goes to show that it’s bigger than basketball here. I am more than just a player.
The season took a turn without Ford, Wagner’s leading shot blocker, third-leading scorer and rebounder, and one of his best defenders. The Seahawks have lost three of their last five games after starting 13-0 in the NEC and finished second in the league behind top-seeded Bryant.
Wagner wasn’t the same team without Ford, not as explosive or dynamic defensively. But against St. Francis, the Seahawks got back to basics and earned a 29-point, 82-53 victory, their biggest margin of victory since Jan. 17. Alex Morales recorded a triple-double of 11 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists in the win, the first known triple-double in NEC tournament history since 1983.
This tournament is a watershed moment in a memorable three-year career at Wagner for the 6-foot-6 Morales, two-time NEC Player of the Year.
This is Morales’ last chance to bring the Staten Island school back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2003. The Paterson, NJ native still thinks about last season’s semi-final loss to Mount St. Mary’s , when he shot 3-for -15 in a six-point loss. He wants to win it for Mason, who did everything to Wagner except reach the NCAA Tournament, and for the six seniors who came back with that pursuit in mind. But above all, he wants to do it for Ford, his close friend, who stayed with him during the COVID-19 pandemic due to a complicated family situation.
“Just to do it for him, to see his smile bigger than he’s ever been, that’s hugely important,” said Morales, the only player in the country to average at least 18.0 points. , 7.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.5 steals per game. . “Even more important than when he was playing. It pushes me more. It’s motivating.”
If Wagner finishes the job, if he reaches the NEC final on Tuesday night and has the opportunity to cut the nets, Ford will be in the middle of it all. Even with his swollen knee, he won’t ask for help to climb the ladder.
“He will do it himself,” Morales said. “He won’t let anyone take him up there anyway.”