WILLIMANTIC, Conn. – The Eastern
Connecticut State University men's basketball team shot 55 percent
from the floor in the second half to pull away from two-time
defending tournament champion Rhode Island College, 82-60, in the
Little East Conference championship game Saturday at Francis E.
In winning its first LEC tournament title in 12 years – and first under tenth-year head coach Bill Geitner -- Eastern (22-5) broke the program record for wins which it had tied last year and qualifies automatically for the program's fourth NCAA tournament. Rhode Island was making its sixth straight championship game appearance, having won four times.
In a re-match of last year's title game, won by Rhode Island College (22-6), Eastern fell behind by eight points in the opening minutes but never trailed after senior guard Nick Nedwick (Irvington, N.Y.) sank a three-pointer with three minutes left in the first half after being shut out for the first 17 minutes of the game.
Leading by two points at the half, the Warriors outscored Rhode Island 17-8 over the first seven minutes of the second half to move out to a 51-40 lead and later built a 17-point advantage with eight minutes left.
Seven of Eastern's points in that decisive 17-8 run came on seven free throw attempts, with Tournament Most Outstanding Player Jamie Kohn (Columbia, Conn.) and junior center Chris Robitaille (Canton, Conn.) both converting conventional three-point plays.
Less than 24 hours after missing 19 of 36 free throws in an 81-76 double-overtime semifinal victory over Keene State College, the Warriors canned 28 of 35 against Rhode Island. From the stripe, Robitaille was 7-for-9, Nedwick 6-for-6, and Kohn 4-for-5.
Amidst the excitement, Nedwick became the all-time leading scorer in the 72-year history of the program. Needing 13 points to break Rich Vega's existing mark, Nedwick reached the milestone of 1,594 points when he sank the first of two free throws with 2:52 left. Nedwick, who scored nine of the team's 12 points at one point late in the game, scored all but three of his team-high 16 points in the second half and finished with 1,597 career points.
Nedwick led five double-digit scorers for Eastern, two of whom came off the bench. Robitaille and senior guard Chae Philips (West Haven, Conn.) each had 15, Kohn 14 and sophomore guard Brian Salzillo (North Haven, Conn.) 11. Salzillo came off the bench to sink three of Eastern's eight three-point field goals and chipped in four of Eastern's tournament total of 16
Kohn recorded his second tournament double-double by adding a team-high 13 rebounds to help the Warriors out-rebound RIC, 35-27. In the tournament, Kohn had 37 points and 24 rebounds and was 14-for-23 from the floor (60.9) with five assists. Nedwick had 43 points in the tournament with eight rebounds and was 10-for-14 from the foul line, while Philips and Robitaille both had 24 points and ten rebounds. Philips added five assists and four steals. In the tournament, Philips was 6-for-7 from three-point range after totalling only 13 during the regular season.
Senior forward Mason Choice (Newport, R.I.) led Rhode Island with a game-high 21 points (8-for-12 from the floor), while junior guard Tahrike Carter (Brooklyn, N.Y.) added 14 points. In the tournament, Choice had 38 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds. He shot 57.9 percent from the floor and was 15-for-18 from the stripe. Senior center Mike Akinrola (Woonsocket, R.I.) followed Choice in the tournament with 34 points and six rebounds. Akinrola, last year's tourney MVP, shot 57.9 from the field and converted 11 of 12 free throws.
Trailing by 11 points with 3:14 left, third-seeded Rhode Island had advanced to the final by stunning second-seeded Western Connecticut, 75-74, in Friday's semifinal.
The 20-win season is the third straight for Eastern and the team's final winning percentage will be no worse than fourth all-time in a season.