WILLIMANTIC, Conn. – Both teams erased double-digit deficits, but the Eastern Connecticut State University men's basketball team used an 11-2 run after falling behind by five points with four minutes left on the way to its 37th consecutive Little East Conference regular-season home win, 83-78, over Keene State College Thursday night at Francis E. Geissler Gymnasium. The win reduces the magic number for clinching the top seed in the LEC tournament to one, with three LEC regular-season games remaining.
Keene State (15-7, 9-2 LEC) led by 11 points six minutes into the game and Eastern (20-2, 11-0 LEC) took a 15-point lead late in the first half before the game came down to the final minutes.
Keene, which nailed two three-pointers late in the game with the shot clock winding down, led by five with four minutes left, but Eastern scored 11 of the next 13 points. The Warriors took the lead for good, 75-74 on an inside hoop by senior Tarchee Brown (Rockville) off a steal by junior Leonel Hyatt (Greenwich). With the Warriors clinging to a two-point lead with just over a minute left, sophomore guard Carlos Gonzalez (Springfield, MA) stole the ball and converted a bucket at the other end to make it 80-76 with 23 seconds left. Keene cut the Eastern lead to two again on Jordan Haywood's inside basket, but senior guard Kendall Marquez (Willimantic) sank one of two free throws to make it 81-78 with 3.3 seconds left. The Warriors commited a foul when the second free throw was missed, but the Owls missed a pair from the stripe on the other end, and Brown dropped in two freebies with 0.7 seconds left to preserve the win.
Ranked No. 10 nationally, Eastern has won 20 games in eight of the last nine years and is the four-time defending LEC regular-season and last year's LEC tournament champion, defeating the Owls in the final at Geissler Gymnasium.
Marquez led Eastern with a season-high 24 points (8-of-12 from the line, 4-of-8 from three-point range) and Keene State sophomore transfer Jake Collagan (Wethersfield) came off the bench for 22 points (7-of-11 FG, 4-of-5 three-pointers) -- his highest total since the opening weekend. Gonzalez had 15 points, nine rebounds, six assists and three steals.
At left: Keene State transfer Jake Collagan (2) of Eastern -- who was booed throughout his return to Keene a month ago -- answered his critics with 22 points off the bench in Eastern's 83-78 Little East Conference victory before 1,500 fans Thursday evening at Geissler Gym. Collagan was 7-of-11 from the floor (4-of-5 from distance) and 4-of-5 from the free throw line in 28 minutes. (Photo by Nick McEnany)
Freshman guard Miguel Prieto of Keene led all players with 27 points to go along with four rebounds and four assists. Junior forward Ty Nichols had 16 points, six rebounds, six assists and five steals before fouling out with 0.7 seconds left. Senior guard Dizel Wright added 12 points (6-of-7 FG) before fouling out with 3:36 left and his team leading by three.
Keene commited 22 turnovers and missed 15 of 32 free throws.
Eastern was 21-of-30 from the stripe and 12-of-26 from distance.
Wins in their three LEC regular-season games would give the Warriors a second 14-0 season in five years. No other team has won all of its LEC regular-season games since the 14-game season was instituted 20 years ago. If Keene had won Thursday and both teams had finished with 13-1 LEC regular season records, a coin flip would have decided the top seed and tournament host.
Eastern visits Massachusetts Dartmouth Saturday in a Little East Conference game at 3 p.m.