Richmond's T.J. Cline sets focus on NCAA Tournament bid

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) Richmond's versatile forward T.J. Cline would trade the Atlantic 10 player of the year award he recently received for his first trip to the NCAA Tournament.

But for the 6-foot-9 son of Nancy Lieberman to get to the tourney, he likely needs to lead the third-seeded Spiders to three straight wins in the Atlantic 10 Tournament. His Hall of Fame mom won consecutive AIAW national championships in 1979 and 1980, and the women's NIT in 1978 while at Old Dominion.

Cline is neither shying away from the challenge, nor sugar-coating what he sees as his responsibility to lead the way.

''It would mean the world to me. That's been my dream ever since I've come to college, especially this whole year,'' Cline said Wednesday. ''I've really tried to think about that that's the goal for all of us.''

Richmond opens A-10 Tournament play in Pittsburgh on Friday night in a quarterfinal matchup with an opponent to be determined.

In Cline's mind, the player of the year award puts the responsibility squarely on his shoulders to lead the Spiders to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011.

''It's an honor, but I think my career here will be determined by whether we go to the NCAA Tournament or not,'' he said. ''That's the standard I hold myself to. That's the standard I hold the team to. If we don't make it, I don't want to say it's a failed season - but it might as well be.''

Richmond (19-11) is riding a four-game winning streak heading into the tournament, and winners in eight of its last 11 games.

''There's a lot of positive energy through the whole program right now,'' Cline said, ''... I think we're ready for this tournament.''

Cline finished the regular season with his second triple-double of the year in a 72-62 victory against Saint Louis. He had 19 points, 12 assists and 11 rebounds, and is the only player in the league to rank in the top five in all three categories. Overall, he averages are 18.6 points 8.1 rebounds and 5.7 assists.

Coach Chris Mooney was not surprised to hear his best all-around player believes most of the burden ahead starts with him.

''I'm sure he does feel that to a certain extent and that's not the case, obviously. It's going to take a team effort and we need to focus on who we play Friday night and try to do as well as we can in that game,'' Mooney said. ''A lot of that (attitude) is what has driven him to be the A-10 player of the year.''

Cline's style of play, and especially his knack for pinpoint passes, has permeated throughout the team.

De'Monte Buckingham, who was named the A-10 rookie of the year, averaged 1.7 assists in the first 23 games, and 3.4 in his last seven, including a season-high of eight against Massachusetts in their penultimate regular season game. Watching Cline pass the ball, the freshman said, has been illustrative.

''I have stolen a couple of passes from him,'' Buckingham said of Cline's impact on him.

Cline's unselfishness, Mooney said, has helped create the ball-sharing style of play the coach prefers.

''For a guy who is the leading scorer to also lead you in assists is always a good sign,'' said Mooney, a devotee of a Princeton-style offense. ''We throw it to him trying to score and he is obviously very unselfish and a great passer and can find open guys. That makes you more willing to throw it to him, more willing to make the extra pass.

''I think we try to recruit all guys that can pass,'' Mooney said, ''but I do feel like having your best player be such a good and willing passer, that really is contagious.''

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