Not ready to go home
|Jamie Kohn crashes the boards
with the best of them, averaging 7.3 rebounds per game from his
Eastern Connecticut athletics file photos
By Andrew Lovell
Bill Geitner doesn't profess to be a historian. But even he knows it's been a long time since an NCAA Sweet 16 included the Eastern Connecticut men's basketball team.
Nineteen years, to be precise. The Warriors reached the Sweet 16 in 1992 and the Elite Eight in 1993. It's taken them 19 seasons to get back.
After a 66-51 win over Medaille in the opening round and a 70-69 double overtime win against Oswego State in the second round, Eastern Connecticut finds itself among the remaining 16 teams in the tournament. The Warriors also stand as the lone remaining Little East team, a testament to their regular-season and conference tournament crowns.
The driving force behind the Warriors' run has been the team's senior quartet -- guard Nick Nedwick, guard Jamie Kohn, forward Hamilton Levy and guard Chae Phillips. All four provide something different on the court, but at the same time bring a common attitude and work ethic.
Nedwick (16.8 points per game) provides the go-to scoring punch, while Kohn (7.3 rebounds per game) was the conference's top rebounder a year ago. Levy, a hard-nosed utility player, does a little bit of everything. Phillips, who splits time at point guard with junior Joe Ives, brings a veteran presence off the bench.
It's because of this group that Geitner, with his team coming off a 21-win season in 2010-11, expected bigger things in 2011-12. Those expectations have proven true.
The Warriors, after an early-season loss to St. Joseph's (L.I.), rattled off 13 straight victories, including a 70-59 home win over Rhode Island College on Dec. 10. Geitner said that win, over a perennial LEC and NCAA contender, was an early turning point.
|Nick Nedwick was in a walking boot but played in the opening rounds of the tournament and leads the team in scoring, assists and steals.|
"That gave a lot of our guys some confidence and the belief that this could be a special year," Geitner said.
The Warriors went 9-2 in January, battling through the heart of their LEC slate. February brought a pair of one-point losses -- to Wesleyan in a nonconference game and to Western Connecticut in a painful, fourth-quarter collapse. But the Warriors closed out the regular season with back-to-back wins at Keene State and at Mass-Boston to clinch the No. 1 seed in the LEC tournament.
Eastern Connecticut outlasted Keene State in double overtime in the first game, and defeated Rhode Island College with relative ease in the conference tournament final. The Warriors' path to the NCAA Tournament wasn't easy, yet they made it look so with an 11-3 mark in LEC play.
Geitner said the team's defense has made the difference, and few could argue that. Eastern Connecticut held Medaille to just 37 percent from the field in the opening round, and limited sharp-shooting Oswego State to just 24 percent from three-point range in the second round.
Nedwick, the LEC's defensive player of the year as a sophomore and junior, and Levy, who shed a walking boot (bruised heel) to play last weekend, set the tone for Eastern Connecticut's defensive approach.
"Defense has been our bread and butter all year," Geitner said. "We have to defend. I think we defend pretty well as a team, because offensively there's going to be times where we are challenged."
Of course, like any great playoff run, the Warriors have had unexpected heroes step up. Sophomore forward Brian Salzillo, the Warriors' top three-point shooter and one of the first players off the bench, has arguably been the team's NCAA Tournament MVP.
Salzillo scored 11 points and drained three of his five three-pointers in 16 minutes against Medaille. But that just an appetizer to the main course he would provide in the second round.
Salzillo burned Oswego State for 15 points on a perfect 5-for-5 night from the field (including three three-pointers). But none were bigger than Salzillo's go-ahead three with eight seconds remaining in the second overtime that put Eastern Connecticut up 70-69.
"He's not afraid to take big shots, and clearly that was the biggest one of the year so far," Geitner said.
Eastern Connecticut now faces CSAC champion Cabrini (28-1), a team that hasn't lost since Dec. 30. The Cavaliers, led by senior guard Cory Lemons, boast a high-powered offense and a deep 10-player rotation. Should the Warriors get past the Cavaliers, an Elite Eight date with the Middlebury Panthers may well await.
"At this point there's only 16 of us left," Geitner said. "No one's going to be bad."
And if the Warriors' run comes to an end this weekend? Well, Geitner just hopes it doesn't take another 19 years for a return trip.