KEENE, N.H. 2/21/12 – With their backs against the wall, a re-energized Keene State men's basketball team showed some life, holding off a tough UMass-Dartmouth team 75-64 in a quarterfinal Little East Conference tournament game played at Spaulding Gym on Tuesday night.
The fourth seed Owls (19-7) advance to the semifinal round where they will face top seed and host Eastern Conn. State University on Friday (5:30 p.m.). UMass-Dartmouth, the fifth seed, concludes its season with a 13-13 record.
With their season on the line, the Owls, who had dropped their last three conference games entering the tournament, came out ready to play. Keene State diversified its offense getting points inside and outside. Junior Eric Fazio (Hopewell Junction, N.Y.) hit a three-pointer from the top of the key to put the Owls up 25-18.
Keene State scored the final nine points of the half. Sophomore Montel Walcott (New Haven, Conn.) made a conventional three-point play and junior Ryan Martin (Wayne, Maine) connected on a three-pointer from the corner to push the Owls' lead to 35-22. Sent to the line with 3.9 seconds to go, junior Rashad Wright (Agawam, Mass.) made one of two free throws. After missing his second attempt, he chased down the rebound and hit a baseline jumper at the buzzer to give Keene State a 38-24 halftime lead.
Twelve of UMD's 24 points in the first half came on second chance points.
Martin said it was important for the Owls to get off to a good start. "The last three games we didn't get off to a good start and that was one of our focus points today," said Martin, who led the Owls with 19 points. "We played our game and pushed the ball and got some easy baskets."
"We played with a lot of energy and a lot of emotion," said KSC Coach Rob Colbert. "I thought fatigue became an issue. They didn't have as deep of bench as we did and consequently we were able to get some easier looks."
The Owls didn't let up in the second half, going on a 9-2 run out of the break that was capped off by a drive down the lane by junior Anthony Mariano (Naugatuck, Conn.) that put the Owls up 47-26.
The Corsairs made a run at the Owls at the midway point of the second half. A breakaway slam by senior Lance Greene (Dorchester, Mass.), who finished with a game high 25 points and 11 rebounds, cut the lead to eight points (55-47). Back-to back three-pointers by junior John Genkos (Worcester, Mass.) and freshman Jake Laga (Northampton, Mass.) made it a four point game (57-53) with seven minutes to go.
"They're a tough team and we knew they had a run in them," said Martin. "But we showed some mental toughness and were able to fight back."
The Owls answered with an 8-2 run with a pair of free throws by Mariano giving KSC a 65-55 lead with 3:28 to play. A reverse baseline lay-up-up by Wright made it 67-55.
Colbert was pleased with the play of his big men, putting Wright and Walcott on the court at the same time late in the game. "We felt their size and rebounding was an issue," he said. We thought they would have trouble with a double post. It's one of the first times we've done it but it seemed to work out."
"I brought some energy like I do every game. That's my role and I'm going to do it again Friday and Saturday, said Walcott, who had seven points and five rebounds in his 18 minutes on the floor.
The Corsairs made things interesting down the stretch. After a steal, Green hit a lay-up to make it 69-62 with 1:06 to play.
Mariano found Fazio down low for a basket and Mariano hit a breakaway lay-up to make it 73-64 and the Owls were able to hold off the Corsairs and advance to the semifinals.
Mariano scored 16 points and grabbed seven rebounds while Wright finished with 11 points. Senior Ollie Hunter (Bedford, N.H.) filled up the score sheet with eight points, seven rebounds and three assists.
Senior Colin Burns (Chepachet, RI) added 15 points and Pulver had 10 rebounds for UMD.
The Owls shot 26-56 (46%) from the field and had a good night from the line, hitting 18-22 (82%). UMass-Dartmouth shot 28-77 (36%) form the field but was 3-17 (18%) from behind the arc. The Corsairs had a slight 43-40 advantage on the boards.
It was the seventh time Keene State had faced UMass-Dartmouth in the tournament. The Owls lost in the LEC finals to the Corsairs in 1998 (81-79) and 2001 (99-89, OT). After being upset in the first-round in 2005 by UMD (89-82), KSC has won the last two tournament meetings, defeating the Corsairs in the 2006 semifinals (86-77) and last season in the first-round (96-88, OT).
The Owls will now turn their attention to Eastern Conn., a team they split with during the regular season. "I think we're ready,' said Martin. "We beat them once and I think we're ready to beat them again."