BENNINGTON, Vt. — Southern Vermont College is the 2016 New England Collegiate Conference (NECC) men's basketball champion as the top-seeded Mountaineers defeated No. 3 Becker College 74-72 Saturday night in the tournament final played at the Mountaineer Athletic Center.
The two sides battled through the opening 20 minutes before SVC brought a tight 36-33 lead into the locker room. Southern Vermont opened it up to a nine-point advantage late in the second half before the Hawks clawed back to keep their hopes alive. A BC three-pointer with 32 seconds left made it a 74-72 game, and a Mountaineer turnover allowed Becker to set up one final attempt.
The Hawks decided to forgo a chance to send the game into overtime, instead electing to put up a potential game-winning shot from beyond the arc; it would go wayward, however, as the MAC faithful stormed the court and helped SVC celebrate its league title.
"I couldn't be more proud of this group of guys and our staff," commented SVC third-year head coach Dan Engelstad. "Winning the championship is special; it's what we've dreamed of."
It is Southern Vermont's second conference crown in team history and its first NECC championship as the Mountaineers won the Great Northeast Athletic Conference tournament in 2003. SVC improves to 24-3 on the year with Saturday's victory, getting a chance to tie its single season wins record next week in the NCAA Division III Regional Championship.
"I know our team has no fear," Engelstad continued. "I imagine we'll play some really good teams next weekend and that we'll have our hands full. But, like I told my guys afterward, there's not a group in the country, and that includes the best teams in the country, that I'd rather go to battle with and go grind these games out with. I'm really excited to see how we perform at the NCAA's. Our guys like the bright lights, and we look forward to carrying this momentum into the regional tournament."
SVC awaits Monday's 12:30 p.m. selection show that will announce where the team will head for the first round of the regional tournament and who it will match up against. The selection show can be viewed at: http://www.ncaa.com/live/player?vid=2016/2303&date=2016/02/29.
"It was special to have the SVC faithful there, especially after the heartbreak last year," Engelstad added. "For us to come back and take care of business on our home floor, it means a lot to myself and our program."
The MAC parquet proved to be a favorable surface for SVC in the 2015-16 season as the Mountaineers went a perfect 11-0 on their own court, marking the first time in program history that the team was undefeated at home. Southern Vermont has now taken its last six straight meetings against Becker, defeating the Hawks in the postseason for the second consecutive year.
The title is SVC's sixth total NECC championship across its athletic offerings since the inception of the league for the 2008-09 academic calendar (women's volleyball 2011, 2012, 2013 & men's cross country 2014, 2015), and it marks the first time that the College has won two Conference crowns in the same school year after the men's cross country team claimed the championship back in October.
Southern Vermont senior Casey Hall (Albany, N.Y.) capped a stellar weekend, scoring a game-high 18 points to go with 12 rebounds for his fifth straight double-double and sixth of the season; he was awarded as the tournament's Most Valuable Player during the post-game awards ceremony for his performance during the playoffs. Classmate DeShawn Hamlet (Hartford, Conn.) added another 13 points and a game-best 16 rebounds, turning in stat lines good enough to be placed on the All-Tournament Team.
Mountaineer freshman Josh Borders (Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.) tallied 12 points in the win while senior Jeff James (Bowie, Md.) had 11 points and three assists. Junior Nate Goldsmith (Capitol Heights, Md.) came off the bench to register eight quick points in just 10 minutes of reserve time for the hosts.
Five Becker (17-11) players reached double figures in the points column, being led by junior Kyle Credle (Queens, N.Y.) who notched 17 points, five rebounds, three assists and two steals to garner an All-Tournament Team honor. Hawk senior Rashaun Liggon (Elizabeth, N.J.) picked up the additional BC All-Tournament Team selection, scoring 10 points to go with his five rebounds in the effort. Senior Reginald Finney (Ansonia, Conn.) dropped 11 points while sophomore Samuel Durodola (Rosedale, N.Y.) put down 10 points on the night. Sophomore Nafis Streeter (Philadelphia, Pa.) came off the BC bench to score 12 points, adding five rebounds and three steals to his line.
Also making it onto the All-Tournament Team were Regis College freshman Ademola Afonja (Staten Island, N.Y.) and Elms College senior Jerry Buchanon (Windsor, Conn.).
Southern Vermont shot 39.3 percent (24-61) from the floor as the Hawks went 27-for-63 (42.9 percent) on field goal attempts. The Mountaineers snagged 49 rebounds to Becker's 31, and their bench outscored that of BC by a 19-15 margin. Both teams registered 30 points from the paint while the Hawks owned an 18-6 advantage in points off turnovers. SVC utilized its 17-8 upper hand on the offensive glass to outscore Becker 15-8 in second-chance points.
The Mountaineers hit all seven of their three-pointers on the night in the first half, using three of those in the opening four minutes of the game to take the momentum and a 13-2 lead. Credle answered with a trey of this own, only to have Hamlet drill one from the outside to push it back into double digits. Becker tallied seven unanswered points to inch back, Credle starting that spurt by knocking down all three free throws after being fouled on a shot from beyond the arc.
SVC's downtown success continued through the midpoint of the half, Goldsmith and sophomore Daemond Carter (Forestville, Md.) each hitting a three on back-to-back trips down the floor to give their team a 24-12 upper hand. The tides quickly turned, however, as the Hawks stormed back with a 15-3 run over the next four minutes to tie the ballgame. BC freshman Kareem Davis (Lowell, Mass.) knocked one down from three-point range in that stretch, and Finney followed with one of his own on Becker's next possession to force a Southern Vermont timeout.
Finney then converted an old-fashioned three-point play at the 7:12 mark to even things at 27-27. The teams traded blows down the stretch of the period before Davis connected on another three-ball from the right side in the final minute, and two SVC free throws then set the score at 36-33 prior to the halftime horn.
Coming out of the break, a Hamlet finger role started a 10-3 Mountaineer spurt that put SVC on top by eight. Streeter would soon-after go into the post and fire out a pass to the perimeter where junior Khairi Mosley (Elizabeth, N.J.) caught-and-shot the ball at the right edge to cut Becker's deficit down to five (48-43). A pretty Streeter reverse layup off the glass made it just a three-point SVC advantage, but the Mountaineers were able to maintain their separation as the battle continued.
With the ball on the left side of the low post, Southern Vermont junior Rayshawn Taylor (Silver Spring, Md.) was fouled while getting a fade-away jumper to go for the and-one play and a burst of energy to the Mountaineer fans. Five straight points off the hand of Hall put SVC ahead by seven with 9:04 to go, but Becker once again responded to stay close with the help of a midair put-back by Finney. Six unanswered points, capped by a James tip-in, bumped it up to a nine-point Mountaineer lead as the game headed into its final minutes.
Credle converted an and-one play for the first three of five straight points that kept the Hawks in striking distance, only to see Borders cut the corner at the top, left edge of the paint and make an uncontested drive through open space to the hoop for an easy two. Liggon dropped a three with 1:00 on the clock to make it a 74-69 game, and Becker then forced a Mountaineer turnover to set up another Liggon triple that made it a one-possession game with 32 ticks left to go.
The Hawks utilized their final timeout after the trey, drawing up a defense that once again caused SVC to turn it over. Unable to create a huddle, Becker had to implement a dead-ball play that went for the win, getting Credle an open look at three from the left edge of the arc. His attempt to capture the tournament trophy at the buzzer would just be off line, however, allowing the Mountaineers to hoist the cup and celebrate with their fans.