Recap: Men’s basketball caps off season with first NCAA tournament appearance

Fans cheered on the men’s basketball team on Feb. 27 as the Lions departed for New Jersey en route to their first National Collegiate Athletic Association Division III tournament appearance.

Head coach Bill Curley said the team is fortunate to have the opportunity to keep playing.

“The thing that’s tough is that we’re playing so well and we want to keep playing, so that’s probably the best part,” Curley said. “We’re so happy that our season has been extended and that we get to continue to play.”

The Lions entered the season ranked sixth out of eight on the New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference preseason coaches’ poll, but finished as the conference champions.

The Lions began conference play on Jan. 2 with an 84-76 victory over the United States Coast Guard Academy. Their most impressive win of the regular season was a decisive 84-65 victory over first-seeded Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Other significant victories include a 95-93 double-overtime win over Springfield College and a 73-70 win against Worcester Polytechnic Institute late in the season off a game-winning buzzer-beater by freshman guard Nate Martin.

The team closed out the regular season with a 97-83 win against Coast Guard on the Lions’ senior day on Feb. 16.

In the semifinals of the NEWMAC playoffs, the Lions defeated Springfield College 80-69 in their first-ever postseason home game. With the win, the team advanced to the conference championship game for the first time in team history and beat Worcester Polytechnic Institute 93-75 to become NEWMAC champions.

Curley said the team’s leadership started the moment the players arrived on campus.

“It started way back in September when they came to the campus,” Curley said. “We have a great leader in Geoff Gray, and he was getting the guys in the gym and, honestly, that’s where it started. Even though we are playing a bunch of freshmen, it’s the stuff that they do after our play dates—with the leadership there, with Geoff [Gray] and Jack [O’Connor] getting in the gym.”

Gray and junior guard Jack O’Connor each scored 20.3 points per game to lead the team. Gray also averaged 9.2 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game.

The Lions had large contributions from freshmen this season. Freshman guard Zach Waterhouse scored 16.4 points per game—the third-highest on the team and eighth- highest in the NEWMAC—and started 19 of 27 games.

Freshman center Jarred Houston started in 26 out of 27 games, averaging 7.7 rebounds and a team-high of 1.6 blocks per game. Freshmen guards Trevor McLean and Nate Martin both averaged over 21 minutes per game. McLean started all 27 games, and Martin started 10. McLean shot 51.4 percent from the three-point line—the highest on the team.

Curley said the team’s success relies on the players’ energy. He said they hope to keep the same mentality going into the tournament.

“We’re still a young team, and we’re not a perfect team yet. We’re just going to keep doing what we’ve been doing—bringing the energy, trying to get out and go, and then just trying to make some defensive stops and make more baskets.” Curley said.

The Lions ranked second in the NEWMAC in scoring with 81 points per game and second in rebounds per game with 37.1 and a 46.6 percent field goal percentage.

Curley said the team needs to remember to keep fighting and keep working during the tournament.

“Rowan [University] made the tournament and they’re hosting, so they’re a pretty high seed. So it’s going to be a dogfight, and we just have to remember why we’re there,” Curley said. “We’re there because we’ve earned this spot. It’s going to be a great challenge, it’s going to be a great learning experience, and it’s going to be a great environment to be in.”

The Lions will play Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey in the first round of the NCAA tournament on Friday, March 1 at 7:30 p.m.

Watch the Beacon’s live coverage of the men’s basketball team departing to New Jersey for the upcoming NCAA tournament.

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