WILLIMANTIC, Conn. – The Eastern Connecticut State University men's and women's basketball teams close out the 2018 portions of their schedules this weekend prior to heading into the bulk of their Little East Conference schedules in 2019.
The women (6-2) will have been idle for three weeks – since posting their fourth straight win Dec. 8 at Plymouth State University – when they face host Salem State University (2-7) Saturday at 3 p.m. at the Salem State Holiday Classic at Twohig Gymnasium. On the second day of the tournament Sunday at noon, the Warriors face Endicott College. Endicott (5-4) opens the tournament Saturday at 1 p.m. against Castleton University, a first-year member of the Little East Conference.
After winning only three of last year's first eight games en route to a rare sub-standard 12-15 season, Eastern has turned it around this season despite playing six of its first eight games on the road, where it is 5-1.
The Warriors' starting lineup has remained virtually intact this year with juniors Sabrina LeMere (North Branford) and Julie Jordan (Sterling) and freshman Julie Keckler (Trumbull) in the backcourt, with senior Kelsey Santagata (Stamford) and junior Mya Villard (Cromwell) in the post.
Three guards have provided depth in the backcourt: junior Lizzy Cretella (Cheshire) and freshmen Jenna Serrantino (Cromwell) and Danielle O'Brien (Rockland, MA). Cretella is rapidly recovering from last year's ACL injury which ended her season after nine games, and is averaging 15 minutes off the bench (23.0 in the last two games) this year, while Serrantino averages 13.5 minutes and O'Brien 13.3. Serrantino started two games in place of Jordan in mid-November when the latter sustained a concussion.
Freshmen Aiyana Ward (Waterbury) and Anna Barry (Andover) – the team's only six-footer -- each average 8.1 minutes as the first two post players to spell Santagata and Villard.
The Warriors play six of their first seven games of the New Year at Geissler Gymnasium.
Men Face Difficult Test in Naismith Opener
The Warriors (8-2) bring a three-game winning streak into the opening round of the Springfield College Naismith Classic Saturday at 3 p.m. against undefeated and 16th-ranked Nichols College (9-0) in a battle of teams which won their respective conferences last year and qualified for the NCAA tournament.
Eastern will have been idle for ten days and Nichols for nearly three weeks when the teams clash in the Naismith opener Saturday. The winner of that game plays in the tournament final Sunday at 3 p.m. and the loser in the consolation game at 1 p.m. Springfield (3-6) hosts No. 22-ranked Salisbury University (9-1) Saturday at 1 p.m. in the tournament opener. Springfield stopped a six-game slide with a win in its most recent outing while Salisbury dropped its first its last time out.
The back-to-back this weekend will be the third already for Eastern, which split two games on the opening weekend at the WPI tournament and defeated Carthage College (78-71) and Widener University (74-69) Dec. 17-18 at Miami Shores.
For the Warriors, four veterans have been joined in the lineup by freshman forward Seth Thomas (Norwich) in all ten games to date: juniors Jake Collagan (Wethersfield) and Carlos Gonzalez (Springfield, MA) and sophomore Cory Muckle (Westbrook) each average well over 30 minutes each in the backcourt, with Thomas joining senior Leonel Hyatt (Greenwich) up front.
Freshman Sharown Fowler (Springfield, MA) spells Thomas and Hyatt in the front court, with seniors Donny Craig (Waterford) and Jaysen Nunez (Hartford) seeing significant time as key backcourt reserves.
Eastern and Nichols have faced one common opponent, both clubs defeating Wesleyan University by roughly 20 points (two of the Cards' three losses to date) five days apart in November. Springfield reached last year's NCAA Final Four for the first time, finishing 22-9. The Pride are led by 6-foot 5 inch third-team All-America guard Jake Ross, a fiinalist last year for the Bevo Francis Award as the best college basketball player in the country outside the Division I level. Ross, who averaged 24.8 points, 9.8 rebounds and 4.3 assists last year, had 21 points, nine rebound and seven assists in last year's national semifinal loss. He has missed three of his team's losses this year with injury.
As a team, Nichols ranks ninth nationally in scoring margin (+21.4) and 14th in scoring (92.2). Eastern allows an average of 70.3 points per game but has surrendered more than 80 in a game three times.
Gonzalez ranks second in Division III in steals per game (3.70), while senior guard Marcos Echevarria averages 20.1 points and junior guard DeAnte Bruton 18.8 for Nichols.
While the Warriors have defeated the Bison the last seven times the teams have met – only the last two having been contested since 1984 – they will need a solid effort to make it eight in a row. The teams had nearly identical records last year, Eastern at 26-4 with a program-record for wins, and Nichols at 25-4. The Bison had won 11 straight prior to being eliminated in the first round of last year's NCAAs.
In 2011, Eastern defeated Hunter College and Springfield to capture the Naismith Classic and went on to reach the NCAA Sweet 16 following a pair of NCAA tournament victories.
The men open 2019 with five straight Little East Conference contests and play six of their first seven after the New Year at Geissler Gymnasium.