SPRINGFIELD, Mass. – Marcos Echevarria scored 14 of his game-high 30 points over the final five minutes of the first half to spark the No. 16 nationally-ranked Nichols College men's basketball team from a 14-point first-half deficit to a 79-73 non-conference victory over Eastern Connecticut State University in the opening round of the Hampton Inn West Springfield/Naismith Classic Saturday afternoon in Springfield College's Blake Arena.
Eastern (8-3), which limited Nichols to nine points through the first nine minutes in racing to its 14-point lead, had a three-game winning streak halted in its first loss to Nichols (10-0) in the last eight games in the series. Nichols entered play ranked 14th nationally in scoring average (92.2) and ninth in Division III with a scoring margin of 21.4.
Eastern faces Springfield College (3-7) in Sunday's consolation game at 1 p.m. while Nichols meets No. 22 Salisbury University (10-1) in the 3 p.m. title game. Coming off its first loss of the season, Salisbury outscored Springfield 13-2 over the final five minutes for an 82-63 win over Springfield in Saturday's first semifinal. Springfield reached last year's NCAA Division III Final Four while Eastern and Nichols also qualified for NCAA tournament play.
Eastern's defense allowed Echevarria to take only one shot through the first ten minutes before the senior guard followed by connecting on six hoops in a row late in the half – five of them from beyond the arc – as the Bison outscored the Warriors 18-6 over five minutes to pull even at 34-34 in the final minute of the first half.
After never trailing in the first half following the first bucket of the game, Eastern played come-from-behind throughout the entire second half when Echevarria and fellow guard and top scorer DeAnte Bruton combined for 27 of their team's 45 second-half points. The pair were 8-of-17 from the floor and 9-of-9 from the stripe after the break.
Nichols never led by more than the final six-point margin, but after the Warriors pulled to within one, 67-66, on a free throw by freshman forward Seth Thomas (Norwich) with 3;35 left, Nate Tenaglia nailed his only three-pointer of the game to push the lead back to four. The Warriors made it a one-possession game when junior guard Carlos Gonzalez (Springfield, MA) drained his fifth three-pointer of the game, but Bruton swished a pair of freebies four seconds later to make it 78-73 and all but seal Eastern's fate.
At right: Leonel Hyatt
Eastern's balanced scoring in the backcourt staked it to it to its 14-point first-half lead. Gonzalez, junior Jake Collagan (Wethersfield) and sophomore Cory Muckle (Westbrook) all had nine points on a combined 11-of-19 marksmanship from the floor as the Warriors shot 56 percent from the field over the first 20 minutes. Thirteen turnovers, however, prevented Eastern from putting the game out of reach in the first half. Eastern totaled a season-worst 20 turnovers in the game.
Eastern's aggressive defense forced 11 Nichols turnovers (drawing four charges) in the first half and helped account for Nichols' 42.4 percent shooting from the floor, but the Bison regrouped after missing all seven of their first-half free throws to nail 15-of-18 after the break.
Gonzalez led Eastern with a season-high 29 points – one shy of his career best – and also shared the team lead with six rebounds, dished out four assists and had three steals. Collagan had 17 points and Muckle 15 but the rest of the team managed only 12 in total.
Averaging just over 20 points per game, Eschevarria was 10-of-19 with seven three-pointers en route to his 30 points, with Bruton adding 19 points, Jerome Cunningham 11 and 6-foot-8 inch Matt Morrow eight points and a game-high ten rebounds.