WILLIMANTIC, Conn. – The Eastern Connecticut State University men's basketball team outscored WPI by 18 points over 11 minutes in the second half, but the Engineers sank enough free throws in the final minutes to hold off the Warriors' bid with a 75-70 non-conference victory Thursday evening at Francis E. Geissler Gymnasium.
The victory for WPI (5-3) avenges a ten-point loss at the hands of Eastern (7-1) in the championship game of the WPI Ted Coghlin Memorial Tournament Nov. 18. The loss is the first for No. 20 nationally-ranked Eastern, whose seven opening wins matched the best start ever, by the 1941-42 squad which finished 14-0.
WPI dominated the first half with a balanced attack, scoring numerous easy buckets on backdoor cuts and canning 8 of 13 three-point field goals to move out to a ten-point, 41-31 halftime lead. The Engineeers closed the first half with a 10-2 run.
Dakota Wheeler's jumper eight minutes into the second half upped the visitors' lead to a game-high 20, 61-41, before senior guard Tarchee Brown's (Rockville) offense and Eastern's defense allowed the Warriors to close the game. Brown scored 25 of Eastern's 39 points after the break and grabbed seven of his game-high eight rebounds over the final 20 minutes.
Ultimately, poor three-point shooting (3-of-15) and missed free throws (five in the final eight minutes) in the second half prevented the Warriors from completing the comeback.
After a pair of free throws by freshman Cory Muckle (Westbrook) cut WPI's lead to two with 1:08 left, WPI sank five of its final eight free throws to hold on. With Eastern trailing by four after a pair of freebies from Chris Rodgers with 54 seconds left, the Warriors missed their final five three-point field goals.
WPI's balanced attack featured five double-figure scorers, led by Kahleb Downing (15), Wheeler (14), season scoring leader Jake Needleman (13), Garrett Stephenson (10) and Rogers (10). Downing also had a game-high seven assists, Stephensen adding six assists and five rebounds. All but Rogers are freshmen.
Wheeler also led balanced rebounding with a team-high seven to spark the visitors to a 35-25 advantage.
Brown led all players with 32 points. He was 11-of-21 from the floor and 7-of-10 from the stipe and did not turn the ball over in 40 minutes. Sophomore point guard Carlos Gonzalez (Springfield, MA) added ten points for Eastern, all in the first half, and grabbed five rebounds. Senior guard Collin Jordan (Cheshire) came off the bench for nine points in 15 second-half minutes.
Eastern hosts Plymouth State University Saturday at 3 p.m. in a Little East Conference game.