The men’s basketball team overcame Springfield College 80-69 to advance to its first New England Women’s and Men’s Conference championship in the program’s history.
In the first half, the third seeded Pride jumped to an early 6-0 lead after Springfield’s junior guard Jake Ross opened the game with two consecutive three-pointers. Despite the Lions’ slow start, junior guard Jack O’Connor came back with a three-pointer to give the Lions its first lead of the night seven minutes into the game.
Lions’ freshman center Jarred Houston had a strong first half. With the team down 27-25, Houston received a pass inside and dunked the ball over a defender to ignite a thunderous Emerson crowd. Moments later, Houston starred on the defensive end. He blocked a shot attempt by Springfield that led to a fastbreak layup by freshman guard Zach Waterhouse, giving the Lions a 32-28 lead.
The game remained tightly contested throughout the first half before the Lions took a slim 36-34 lead entering halftime.
Head coach Bill Curley said the team regrouped at halftime after a shaky first half performance on the offensive end.
“We said, ‘Look guys, we’re missing a lot of easy ones, but we’ve got to continue going to the basket,’” Curley said. “Defensively we were doing what we want, but offensively we missed a lot of layups. I said, ‘We’re going to hit these shots in the second half, so just hang in there and keep going.’”
The second half turned into an offensive game as both teams began scoring consistently. After Springfield’s junior forward Heath Post hit a three-pointer to cut the Lions’ lead to 54-53, the Lions responded with a 10-2 run and extended Emerson’s lead to nine. O’Connor fueled the Lions in the second half as he scored 12 straight points to preserve Emerson’s lead.
In the final two minutes of the game, with the Lions holding onto a 71-65 lead, Gray grabbed a crucial offensive rebound and scored on the subsequent putback to push the Lions ahead by eight. The Lions capped off their victory with a slam dunk from Waterhouse that sent the Emerson crowd into a frenzy.
Curley praised the team’s collective performance in the second half.
“Jack got in foul trouble in the first half [and] didn’t pout and came out ready to go,” Curley said. “Geoff [Gray] has been a leader for the last couple years, and it’s great to see him get a chance to play for a championship because he’s worked so hard and he’s committed to make himself a better player. And these freshmen, you can’t say enough about them—they bring the enthusiasm, they keep pushing the guys, and these guys all want to keep playing.”
Gray and O’Connor scored 47 points combined. Waterhouse totaled 17 points while Houston recorded a double-double of 10 points and 10 rebounds. Springfield’s Ross and senior guard Cam Earle scored 20 and 19 points respectively for the Pride in the losing effort.
With this win, Emerson advances to the NEWMAC championship for the first time since joining the conference in 2013. They will play fifth-seeded Worcester Polytechnic Institute in the finals after it defeated first-seeded Massachusetts Institute of Technology 55-53 on Thursday night.
President M. Lee Pelton said he had confidence the team would win tonight and advance to the championship game.
“I’m really proud of these guys. It’s historic—this will be the first game that Emerson will play in the championship finals, and it will be in our gym,” Pelton said. “I’ve watched this team, I’ve come to a lot of their games, I know who they are, and they just played exceptionally well. I was confident that they were gonna win it.”
Curley said he is excited to host the championship game at Emerson.
“It’s fantastic that we get to bring this kind of excitement to Emerson,” Curley said. “To have this kind of enthusiasm is incredible, and to be able to represent Emerson and do it at home is going to be a lot of fun.”
The Lions will play WPI on Saturday, Feb. 23 at 1 p.m. at the Brown and Plofker Gymnasium.