GORHAM, Maine – Sophomore guard Cory Muckle (Westbrook) scored 17 of his game-high 25 points in the first half and the Eastern Connecticut State University men's basketball team guaranteed itself no worse than a first-round Little East Conference tournament home game with an 80-56 victory over the University of Southern Maine Wednesday evening at the Warren Hill Gymnasium.
A winner of 21 of its last 23 games against Southern Maine (4-17, 2-11 LEC), conference leader Eastern (17-5, 11-2) maintained a half-game lead over Keene State College (a 78-77 winner over visiting Western Connecticut Wednesday) and is assured of a top four finish in the final conference standings with three regular-season contests remaining. The top two seeds in the final standings earn first-round tournament byes while the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds host the No. 6 and No. 5 seeds, respectively, in first-round games Feb. 19.
Ranked seventh in the first NCAA Division III Northeast Region poll of the year, released today, Eastern is the five-time defending LEC regular-season and two-time defending LEC tournament champions.
The Warriors, now 7-1 on their opponents' home court this year, never trailed after the opening five minutes and used two significant scoring runs to take command. Leading by four four minutes into the second half, Eastern scored ten straight – three coming on junior guard Jake Collagan's (Wethersfield) first of four three-point field goals and five points by junior point guard Carlos Gonzalez (Springfield, MA) on a steal and layup and three-point field goal.
Leading by 11 with seven minutes left, the Warriors pulled away for good with a 15-0 burst over four minutes on a pair of three-points from Collagan and five points from Gonzalez that upped the lead to 26, 77-51 with just over three minutes remaining.
Behind Muckle, Collagan and Gonzalez, the Warriors amassed 15 three-pointers on 38 attempts – equaling their second-highest three-point total of the year. Muckle tossed in a career-high seven buckets from distance, while Collagan (4) and Gonzalez (3) contributed theirs in the second half.
Behind Muckle, Gonzalez had 19 points (13 in the second half) and Collagan 17 (15 after the break). Gonzalez also chipped in seven rebounds, four assists and two steals and Muckle eight rebounds and three assists. Senior forward Leonel Hyatt (Greenwich) had a team-high 11 rebounds.
The Warriors scored 77 of their points from the floor, with 22 of them coming off 19 USM turnovers. The Warriors tied their season-low of seven turnovers which led to just three Husky points.
Southern Maine, which has dropped nine in a row, got 22 points from senior guard Christian McCue, but no other Huskie managed more than ten.
Both teams were playing without key starters. USM was without top scorer (20.3 ppg.) Jayvon Pitts-Young, a junior guard, and Eastern without freshman forward Seth Thomas (Norwich), who averages 11.1 points and 6.8 rebounds with a 54.0 shooting percentage.
Eastern hosts Western Connecticut Saturday at 3 p.m. in its regular-season home finale before finishing on the road against LEC opponents Castleton University next Wednesday and Keene State Feb. 16.