KEENE, N.H. – Seven times in the last 20 years in the Little East Conference men's basketball playoffs, a team has been in position for a three-peat. Each time it has failed.
Saturday, second-seeded Eastern Connecticut State University carried an eight-point lead into the final four minutes in a quest to become the first three-time champion since 1995, but was outscored 14-3 the rest of the way as top-seeded Keene State College won its third championship in five years, 72-69, Saturday evening at Spaulding Gymnasium in the third straight championship meeting between the teams.
Keene (20-7) had earned the top seed and forged a tie atop the standings with Eastern (20-7) with an 81-76 win over the Warriors a week ago. Saturday, the Owls came from eight points back in the final four minutes to defeat Eastern after losses in the title game each of the past two years at Geissler Gymnasium.
Trailing, 66-58 Saturday, Keene rattled off 11 straight points, moving ahead for good, 68-66, on an inside bucket by Ty Nichols. Nichols had sparked the 11-point run with a three-point field goal that made it 66-61 with 3:47 left. In those final minutes, Eastern missed two three-point field goals, two inside attempts and two free throws and turned the ball over twice.
Down by four, Eastern made it a one-point game, 70-69, on a three-point field goal by sophomore guard Cory Muckle (Westbrook) but Edwin Ezedonmwen sank two decisive free throws with seven seconds left, and the Warriors couldn't connect on a possible game-tying three-point field goal in the final seconds.
Eastern led after the opening minutes of the game and by seven with four minutes left in the first half before settling for a 30-29 halftime edge. The Warriors pushed the lead to nine four minutes into the second half and were up by ten with ten minutes left. The Owls surged in front, 68-66, on Nichols' inside hoop with 1:20 left – their first lead since opening the game with the first five points -- and never trailed again.
Nichols led all players with 37 points with a team-high eight rebounds. He was the only Keene player in double figures.
Muckle led Eastern with a career-high 30 points on 8-of-16 field goal shooting (6-of-11 from distance) and 8-of-8 free throws. Junior guard Carlos Gonzalez (Springfield, MA) had 16 points (8-of-8 free throws), seven rebounds and seven assists before picking up his fifth foul with Eastern leading 66-61 with three minutes left. Freshman forward Seth Thomas (Norwich) added 11 points and a career-high 12 rebounds.
The Warriors were 22-of-26 from the stripe but just 33.9 from the floor. Keene shot 48.1 percent from the floor and conerted 15 of 21 free throws.