WILLIMANTIC, Conn. – Top-seeded Eastern Connecticut State University shook free from a poor first half by connecting on 68 percent of its shots in a 50-point second half and successfully defended last year'sLittle East Conference men's basketball championship with a 79-62 victory over second-seeded Keene State College Saturday evening at Francis E. Geissler Gymnasium.
Ranked No. 10 nationally, Eastern (25-3) has won two straight LEC titles for the first time in program history – both over Keene State (19-9) -- improving to 5-3 in title game appearances and sending Keene to a 3-8 record in championship games. The Owls were appearing in their fourth straight title game, having won two of them. The LEC crown is the fifth for the program, three under the direction of current 16th-year head coach Bill Geitner, one under Hall of Fame coach Dan Switchenko (1992) and one under Barry Davis (2000).
Eastern, a winner of 16 of its last 17 (the loss coming in overtime), qualifies automatically for the NCAA Division III tournament, scheduled to get underway next weekend. Eastern's first-round NCAA tournament opponent and first-round site will be announced on the NCAA Selection Show Monday at 12:30 (www.NCAA.com).
The victory Saturday gives Eastern a season record for wins, eclipsing the 2011/12 team which captured 24 after going three rounds into the NCAA tournament. The Warriors also set season records this year for regular-season wins (22) and regular-season winning percentage (88.0)
Eastern trailed by seven points late in the first half – when it shot 35.3 percent from the floor (2-of-16 from distance) -- but cut it to three by the half, then used a 17-4 run over five minutes early in the second half to moved out to a 13-point, 52-39 lead seven minutes into the half.
Despite starting three freshmen and playing without two key injured players -- losing one in the semifinal win Friday and another with eight minutes left in the first half Saturday -- and losing top player Ty Nichols to five fouls with three minutes left, Keene remained within seven points with seven minutes left. At that point, the Warriors outscored the Owls 9-3 to restore a double-digit lead and take a 13-point cushion into the final five minutes. In that decisive run, Keene sophomore transfer guard Jake Collagan (Wethersfield) swished two free throws and had a steal which turned into a layup by freshman Cory Muckle (Westbrook). Sophomore guard Carlos Gonzalez (Springfield, MA) also nailed a three-pointer in that stretch where Keene failed on three of four shots.
Gonzalez, who keyed Eastern's comeback win over Keene as a freshman in last year's LEC title game, had 12 of his 19 points, four assists and two steals in the second half, sinking five of eight field goals and both three-point attempts. He finished with three steals and a game-high seven assists, giving him 24 assists in three tournament games. He ranks among the Top 10 nationally in steals.
Eastern senior forward Tarchee Brown (Rockville) led four Eastern double-figure scorers with a game-high 21 points to go along with a game-high nine rebounds, five assists and three blocks en route to tournament Most Outstanding Player honors.In three tournament games, Brown averaged 24.0 points and 10.0 rebounds, and collected 13 assists, four blocks and two steals. He shot 65.9 percent from the floor (29-of-44) and had five three-point field goals.
Behind Brown and Gonzalez, senior guard Kendall Marquez (Willimantic) chipped in 11 points and Muckle ten. After playing only five scoreless minutes in the first half, junior forward Leonel Hyatt (Greenwich) helped the Warriors pull away after the half by hitting both of his field goal attempts, grabbing four rebounds, blocking two shots and stealing the ball twice in 18 second-half minutes. Senior forward Jacob Collins (Bristol) grabbed eight rebounds in 15 minutes off the bench for Eastern, and five of Collagan's seven points came on six free throw attempts.
"It was a great atmosphere and we appreciate all of the support from our fans. It really helped. It was electric in here," said Geitner afterward in a post-game interview with E-TV Sports' Jack Petrucci. "It was a great team effort. Tarchee (Brown) really stepped up. Even when he's not scoring, he's doing so many other things. For Tarchee, it's all about winning." Geitner also praised the efforts of Gonzalez and Hyatt. "Carlos made some huge plays and made some huge shots down the stretch. He seems to relish those moments. And Leonel got some big rebounds and scored some key baskets in the second half. He really did a good job of responding after halftime."
Nichols, a junior forward who missed his first six shots from the floor, was limited to 12 points in the game on 5-of-17 field goal shooting, ten shy of his team-leading average. He did contribute a game-high nine rebounds and handed out five assists with three steals. Nichols was slapped with his third and fourth fouls of the game in a four-minute span in the second half, but did not come off the floor until being assessed his fifth in the final minutes.
Senior guard Dizel Wright led Keene with 18 points and also grabbed seven rebounds, but commited eight turnovers. Freshman center James Anozie had 13 points (5-of-8 FG) for Keene.
At right: In three LEC tournament games, tournament MVP Tarchee Brown averaged 24 points and 10.0 rebounds with 13 assists, four blocks, two steals and a 65.9 shooting percentage.
Keene, which survived 25 turnovers in the semifinal win over UMass Boston Friday, was outscored by 11 points off turnovers, the Warriors capitalizing with 20 points on the Owls' 20 turnovers.
Eastern swept the regular-season season series from Keene by a total of 11 points and with three victories this year, has won its last five against the Owls dating back to last year.