It's been over a decade since the Fairleigh Dickinson Knights, or Wagner Seahawks found their way to the NEC title game, but that changed Tuesday night as the two met at the Spiro Sports Center for a rubber match. Ironically enough the last time these two squads played for the NEC title was in 2005 when FDU defeated Wagner 58-52.
Both teams came into Tuesday night with two very different storylines. For Wagner, there was the distraction of their young head coach, Bashir Mason, being mentioned in conversation regarding the vacancy at his alma mater Drexel. The 32-year-old Mason has picked up where Danny Hurley left off with Wagner guiding the Seahawks to winning marks three of his four years.
On the other end of the court was Fairleigh Dickinson, a team experiencing their first winning season in a decade. Former UMass Lowell head coach Greg Herenda took over a Knights program that had a combined 15 wins in the three previous seasons before his arrival. Herenda has brought FDU back to prominence in the NEC and in the process has proven he can win at any level, including junior college, Division III, Division II, and now Division I.
Wagner looked like they were going to close the first half with a double-digit lead as they went up 31-20 with an Aaron Edmead free throw with 3:35 left. Instead, the Knights went on a 10-0 run and eventually closed the half with an Earl Potts Jr. three-pointer to go into the half down just two at 35-33.
Potts continued to stay hot in the second half which coincided with the Knight bench heating up as well. The hot shooting from Herenda's squad flipped the script on Wagner as FDU grew a ten point lead of their own with just over four minutes left in the game.
Wagner turned to full-court pressure and a menacing halfcourt defense that sped FDU up in the final four minutes. The Knights coughed up the ball on back-to-back possessions that allowed the Seahawks to cut the lead to six with 2:20 to play. Wagner had a chance to close the gap even more and stage a comeback but turnovers, missed free throws, and a questionable charge call held the Seahawks back down the stretch.
What was the key difference in FDU stealing the win on Wagner's homecourt? How about a 9-for-19 performance from beyond the arc compared to a 4-for-23 performance from the Seahawks. Potts spearheaded those efforts nailing four three-pointers and finishing the game with 27 points, seven rebounds, and four assists. Darian Anderson was the other threat for FDU posting 28 points, six rebounds, and five assists.
Without a doubt, Fairleigh Dickinson will be a 16 seed when the brackets are revealed this Sunday and may even be sent to Dayton for the First Four. The thing that has to be celebrated the most is the tremendous job Herenda has done to turn around a program that was left for dead three years ago. Many people scratched their heads when he left a newly minted Division I squad with a beautiful arena in UMass Lowell, but Herenda has shown why he made that decision and now has an NEC title with the nation's third youngest team.
Wagner is young as well and loses only one meaningful contributor. The season isn't over for Bashir Mason's squad though as the Seahawks have already punched a ticket to the NIT.