Ithaca College men’s basketball capped off its most successful season in recent memory with a first-round victory in the NCAA Tournament. The team was led by a pair of seniors, Riley Thompson and Sebastian Alderete, who ended their careers within the top 11 of Ithaca’s all-time scoring list.
This season, the duo helped the Bombers reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013 after winning the Liberty League Championship. It didn’t end there, taking down Babson 94-88 in overtime in the first round to set up a date with the top-ranked team in the nation, Swarthmore College.
Ithaca gave it their all on Swarthmore’s home court, pulling within three points with just two minutes left to play. Swarthmore did what they needed to down the stretch and ended Ithaca’s win streak at 12 with an 86-78 defeat. Thompson was thrilled to check off the NCAA Tournament on his career bucket list, even with a second-round exit.
“It was a great experience to get to play in the NCAAs for the first time and to have that come in your senior year makes it even more special,” Thompson said. “That weekend told us what everybody in the locker room already knew, which is we were as good as anyone in the country.”
Thompson continued by going into detail about the Swarthmore game.
“Swarthmore was a team who was in the championship the year before,” he said. “They gave us fits on both ends of the floor. For us to hang tough in that environment, where everybody is rooting for Swarthmore, the place is packed and they’re the number one team in the country, just shows what a season we had and what a team we were. It all came together towards the end.”
Heading into the game on a lengthy win streak had Thompson and his teammates filled to the brim with confidence, but they refused to hang their heads after the tough loss.
“Obviously, you’re very upset when it ends in the moment,” Thompson said. “But given some weeks to reflect, there’s nothing I would change. To go from 9-16 when me and Sebastian [Alderete] were freshmen to a team that ties the school record for wins, goes 24-6, wins a game in the NCAA Tournament; I don’t think that’s anything that anybody imagined us doing this year.”
Thompson ends his career as one of the best players in Bombers history. This season, he became the second Ithaca player ever to be selected to the Division III All-Star Game, which was not played due to Coronavirus concerns. The Pennsylvania native is the sixth leading scorer in program history with 1,517 points, and fourth all-time with 222 three-pointers.
“When you get here as a freshman, you’re trying to do whatever you can to make a difference and stand out,” Thompson said. “You’re not thinking about [breaking records]. It just happened over the course of four years. You work really hard, some things go your way, you have good coaches and teammates, next thing you know you had a historic career. It’s never something I imagined as a freshman. To look back on it, it’s pretty crazy.”
Of course, it would have been fitting to play his last game in college amongst the best players in the country.
“[The Division III All-Star Game] would have been awesome, a great experience to play against the best,” Thompson said. “By the time I found out, I already knew the game was scrapped. I guess, in that way, it helped because I really would have gotten excited if I thought the game was going on when I found out. It would have been a great opportunity to play with the other best players in the country. It’s a great honor to represent the school as well.”
Losing two high caliber players like Thompson and Alderete will undoubtedly be tough, but Thompson believes next year’s squad will pick up right where they left off.
“Winning the [Liberty League Championship] this year was awesome, but that just sets the standard moving forward,” Thompson said. “The program’s in such great shape overall right now, I don’t think expectations have changed internally. Externally they might, but that’s just how it works sometimes. I think we all expect this team to be in the thick of things again next year.”
As far as his message to the players who will be putting on the uniform next year goes, it starts with putting in the work every day.
“Enjoy every single day but take no days off,” Thompson said. “Take no day for granted. Every single year is an opportunity to achieve something and each day is an opportunity to get better. At this level, you have to work every day. I hope they’re not satisfied with just winning one game in the NCAA Tournament.”
Ithaca will be returning 12 of 15 players next season looking to build upon the success next year without their two captains. Thompson has full confidence that the Bombers can carry on without him.
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