For the Keene State College Men’s Basketball team they might want to think of the Francis E. Geissler Gymnasium at Eastern Connecticut State University as their second home.
For the second straight year the Owls have won the Little East Conference Tournament on the Warriors home floor. On Feb. 28 Keene State defeated the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth 86-81.
The contest did not favor the Owls early just like their semi-final game against Rhode Island College. In their semi-final contest the Owls had to overcome a 17-point deficit being down to the Anchormen 25-8. In that contest the Owls were able to storm back and get a 66-59 victory on Feb. 27.
Keene State Interim Head Coach Ryan Cain said his players’ focus and commitment led to the comebacks. “There confidence didn’t waiver for a second in either of those games when we got into those situations. We did things more together when we got down and I think that was the key,” Cain said.
Against UMASS Dartmouth in the championship game the Owls found themselves in a big hole for a second straight day. The Corsairs raced out to a 14-2 start in over the first four minutes. Including the Corsairs being up 21-6 with less than 13 minutes to play in the first half. However, the Owls once again had a comeback in them ending the first half with a 21-5 to be up 47-42 at halftime. Keene State did not look back as they did not trail in the second half.
In the contest the Owls were lead by four players in double figures. Tournament MVP Nate Stitchell had 19 points for the Owls in the championship game. Also, junior Matt Ozzella had 16 points and nine rebounds. Senior Tre’ Tipton who was inserted into the starting lineup against RIC added 10 points. However, the leading scorer was first-year player Ty Nichols coming off the bench to score 20 points.
“It felt good I couldn’t play that much in the first half due to foul trouble. So in the second half I really had to step up for my team and my team needed me and I stepped up,” Nichols said. The tournament MVP said it was nice to win the award but the team’s result to him was more important. “It’s pretty cool to me it is something kind of minor I mean the overall trophy is the biggest thing obviously. I couldn’t of done it without everybody,” Stitchell said.
Keene State defensively had their hands full having to stop Corsairs senior and the leading scorer in the nation Jordan Rezendes. The Owls held him to just 22 points, eight points below his average.
The Owls have had to fight through a number of things this season a coaching change and a number of key injuries. The Owls lost sophomore Dizel Wright to injury back in December and junior Lucas Hamel as well. Hamel returned in mid-February. “After all the injuries I don’t think that our goals changed at all. We would just go about accomplishing those goals in a different way. It is just amazing that we were able to fight through everything that we’ve been through as a group,” Cain said.
Stitchell said, “I guess we just stuck together in a way. We talked about how things were going to be okay.” Stitchell also praised the coaching staffs work this season. “They were a huge piece I was talking to them earlier today. They basically are the glue for all the puzzle pieces. They helped keep us together keep our minds right. A lot of times we got discouraged during the season because it happens to everybody. Those are the guys we can look to keep us together.”
This is the first time the Owls have won back to back LEC Championships. Keene State has also won the tournament crown in 2004. The trip to the NCAA Tournament for Keene State is the fourth in program history they also received an at-large bid in 2007.
Keene State will hit the road for the big dance. The Owls travel to New Jersey to take on Stockton University in Galloway. Tip-off is at 7:30 p.m. on Friday Mar. 4.
Brian Clemmenson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org