Tristan Jung: Our work will not go unanswered this year. At least one member of the club will be exiting the NMTC this year, and it couldn’t have come in a more exciting fashion. The UMass-Lowell River Hawks and the Hartford Hawks will meet on Saturday to decide the America East title, thus ensuring at least one team escapes this year. They both scored stunning upsets on the road on Saturday, upending UMBC and Vermont, respectively. Meanwhile, 13 teams await their fate.
Top-seeded UMBC went up by 16 points early and went into the half up 40-28, but the River Hawks kept crawling back each time. Connor Withers had the game of his life, dropping 28 points on nine threes. UMBC was unable to match the River Hawks at the end and crashed out.
A similar story took place for Hartford against a Vermont team favored by nine at home. This time, it was Austin Williams with the career game, as he had 25 points on 9-of-12 shooting with nine boards and a block. Vermont looked flat for most of the game and was doomed by a 28% shooting performance from beyond the arc. Hartford was able to keep pace with Vermont offensively and rely on a typically excellent defensive performance.
This was only Hartford’s fourth win over Vermont over its last 39 tries. Somehow, all of those wins came at Vermont, as the Hawks actually haven’t had a home win over Vermont since 2003. Very odd. Doesn’t matter though, as we have an NMTC vs NMTC matchup in the America East Final. We won’t take sides in the battle for Hawk superiority, but we’ll definitely be watching. (If your only criteria for rooting is length of stay in the club, that is available on the tracker.)
Saturday was truly one of the best days in NMTC history. Not only did the America East come up big, but the rest of the club performed very well. South Dakota, Elon, Bryant, Army, and William & Mary all won (unfortunately The Citadel continued its rather quixotic quest by losing to UNC Greensboro). With an 85-55 win over fellow member Sacred Heart, Bryant booked a place in the NEC final against Mount St. Mary’s on Tuesday, which will be stressful for the authors of this column.
Perhaps most importantly, Loyola Maryland upset Navy in the Patriot League, which means that Founding Father Army has a clearer path to finally escape. The Black Knights will play ninth-seeded Loyola Maryland on Wednesday on their home floor, with their first Patriot League finals appearance in their sights. We’ve been burned by our originals in the most brutal ways possible, but still it would basically count as triple if they could sneak through. More hype to come if they can get by Loyola.
Also, Nebraska Omaha ended its very disappointing season by getting smacked by South Dakota State. Sigh.
I’ll lead this off by noting William & Mary did a very William & Mary thing and lost 63-47 to Northeastern despite leading at halftime. I swear, William & Mary ends every single season with a frustrating loss. Argh.
North Alabama, despite being ineligible, gave Liberty a run for its money in the ASUN final. It would’ve been karmically nice if Liberty lost that game, but instead we have to deal with Falwell Inc. in the tournament again.
Kansas City really tried hard against North Dakota State and turned a 22-point deficit into just a two-point hole with one possession remaining. But in an appetizer, perhaps, for the remainder of the tournament, this time the refs played their part in the curse, swallowing their whistles as Brandon McKissic’s legs got clipped on a potential game-tying contested layup. About par for the course for the Summit but at least there were still the Coyotes to look forward to on Monday.
Summit Curse BACK
TJ: I don’t know what to say. For the sixth year in a row, I have watched either North Dakota State or South Dakota State crush my dreams. Monday night was all set up for South Dakota, which received a gift when Oral Roberts took down No. 1 seed South Dakota State in the early semifinal game. For once, the Summit League Curse seemed breakable.
In the first half, everything was roses. South Dakota led by eight at halftime. The game was under control. I began to let myself feel optimism.
What a mistake!
Garrett Lash: Here at NMTC HQ, we believe that talking about something directly before it happens might make it not happen. (For instance, in the MMM group chat, if someone ever mentions that a mid-major team has a lead on a major school, they WILL go on to lose). Tristan and I made sure not to jinx this one.
And yet, disaster struck anyway. Despite leading for the vast majority of the game, South Dakota produced yet another saga in this never-ending curse. Clearly not saying anything is not enough. You’re not allowed to think or feel an iota of anticipation whatsoever because that is all the fuel the Summit Demons need to remove joy from your existence.
TJ: The key moment, in hindsight, was when South Dakota went up by nine with 7:12 to go on a Stanley Umude three. I’m sure the win probability at this point was near 80%, but because it’s the Summit League, that number was actually 0%. Before long, players named “Rocky Kreuser” and “Sam Griesel” had sparked a 17-3 run and the game was all but over. Thus, after NMTC losses in the last four conference championship games, this year no teams will even make it. Cool!
GL: You can’t convince me that Rocky Kreuser and Mike Daum aren’t the same flesh.
TJ: Enough sadness, let’s talk about Elon. Last week, I bemoaned Elon’s total inability to even make it to the conference finals. Heading into the CAA Tournament seeded eighth, I wasn’t expecting much, but I guess they were paying attention! First, Elon beat Towson, 69-48. Then it upset James Madison, 72-71, coming back from a 10-point halftime deficit in the process. On Monday night, the Phoenix went up against Hofstra and won 76-58. Elon has now won seven straight games despite starting 0-7 in conference play!
So, what did Mike Schrage change? Well, for starters, they just jack threes like crazy now. They’ve taken 91 threes in their three conference tournament games and made 33 of them, which has been enough to fuel an otherwise moribund offense.
So, Garrett, can they keep it up against a surprising Drexel team?
GL: Apparently I haven’t learned anything from Monday night’s events on the Great Plains of Pain but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that they absolutely can. As the Khardashians have taught us, sometimes it’s not as important to be good at something as it is to be hot. And there haven’t been a ton of positive superlatives for Elon Basketball throughout its Division I history, but if they can stay hot for just one more game (for the rest of their existence even) at least they will have escaped the club, which is more than William & Mary can say at this point. Oh, and also they’re apparently an amazing second half team all of a sudden, outscoring their three tournament opponents by an average of 15 points.
Tristan, how are you feeling about the now healthy Bryant Bulldogs?
TJ: This is likely the best Bryant team since the Bulldogs transitioned to Division I. Jared Grasso’s Bulldogs have won their last four games and are going to be at least seven-point favorites against Mount St. Mary’s. By the metrics, Bryant is the best team in the conference thanks to a series of blowout wins over the last month, and it has the talent to even make some noise if it can escape the Club. Let’s not forget that Bryant pushed ostensible NCAA Tournament bubble team Syracuse to a narrow 85-84 in their season opener and has wins over Stony Brook and New Hampshire. Now that everyone appears to be safe and sound after a COVID outbreak, Bryant has a golden opportunity to escape.
Their now-healthy roster also has more than its fair share of Great Name candidates, including Charles Pride, Hall Elisias, Melo Eggleston, and Joe Moon IV. This core of Elisias, Pride, and junior Peter Kiss definitely deserves to make the tournament. Let’s make it happen.
All times Eastern.
Tuesday, March 9
5 p.m. - MAAC 1st Round: (9) Iona vs. (8) Quinnipiac, ESPN+
7 p.m. - CAA FINAL: (8) Elon vs. (6) Drexel, CBSSN
7 p.m. - NEC FINAL: (4) Mt. St. Mary’s at (2) Bryant, ESPN2
9 p.m. - Southland 1st Round, (10) Houston Baptist vs. (7) Incarnate Word, ESPN+
Wednesday, March 10
11 a.m. - Big Sky 1st Round: (9) Sacramento State vs. (8) Northern Colorado
5:30 p.m. - Patriot Semifinal: (9) Loyola MD at (4) Army, CBSSN