Keene State finds focus for playoffs

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Just a sophomore, Ty Nichols led the Little East Conference in scoring 18.5 points per game.
Keene State athletics photo

By Sarah Sommer 

On paper, it was heartbreaking. A two-point lossin the Little East Conference championship game after leading by as many as 13 points. An opportunity for three straight conference championships thwarted.

But for Keene State, it didn’t feel so devastating. Because it didn’t feel like the end.

After the Owls’ 72-70 loss at Eastern Connecticut in the conference tournament finale on Feb. 25, Keene State knew that its season might continue in the NCAA tournament. On the bus ride back to campus, “it was a lot of positive emotions,” sophomore guard Ty Nichols said, “knowing that we could get an at-large bid.”

That’s exactly what happened. And now, Keene State (21-9) is in round of 16 for a second straight season.

“This team stayed disciplined to our bigger goals,” head coach Ryan Cain said. “Ultimately, our goal wasn’t just to win a Little East Conference tournament championship. It was to get back to the NCAA Tournament and give ourselves an opportunity to play another Sweet 16 and see if we can improve upon last year’s success.”

The Owls face No. 2 Christopher Newport (27-2) at Babson College on Friday. Keene State is coming off a second-round upset of No. 5 Ramapo, 92-91, in overtime on the Roadrunners’ home court. In the first round, the Owls earned a 69-66 victory over Amherst, a national semifinalist last year and the No. 1 team in the country entering the season.

Keene State plays an up-tempo style of basketball with minimal coaching. On offense, that means very few sets and lots of freedom to create shots. On defense, it means straightforward man-to-man.

"It’s just letting the players do what we’ve done all season long and allowing them to make the plays that win the games,” Cain said.

  We meet again: NCAA Tournament Rematches

Keene State's matchup with Christopher Newport is a rematch of last year's round of 16 game, won by CNU. Here are some other rematches that will take place on Friday night.

 Babson-Tufts: Beavers beat the Jumbos on Dec. 3

 Middlebury-Endicott: Gulls beat Panthers on Nov. 27

 Scranton-Tufts (W): Jumbos win 2016 Elite 8 game

 Amherst-Babson (W): Amherst wins on Nov. 20

The game-winning basket against Amherst exemplified this style. After senior guard/forward Matt Ozzella corralled a defensive rebound, Cain did not call a timeout to draw up a final play. Instead Nichols dribbled up the court in transition and pulled up for a three-pointer with 2.5 seconds remaining.

Nichols, who leads Keene State with 18.5 points per game, is an easy player for Cain to trust. He finished with 19 points against Amherst. Against Ramapo, he had a career-high 32 points as well as seven rebounds, seven assists, three steals, and one block.

“His ability to score is obviously there, but he’s not a guy that’s going to force shots in a basketball game,” Cain said. “He’s going to make the right read, make the right play, and get our basketball team the shot that we want when he has the ball.”

Ozzella has also been a highly dependable player. He had game highs of 20 points and 16 rebounds against Amherst and 22 points and a game-high 12 rebounds against Ramapo. He averages 15.3 points and 9.9 boards per contest.

“He’s a rock for us,” Cain said. “You know what you’re going to get from him every single day. He shows up, he competes hard, he does so many different things on both ends of the floor for our team, he can score the ball in a number of ways, he can guard a number of different kind of guys, so he’s very valuable for us.”

“Our guys definitely get up for big games, and they definitely get up for playoff time,” Cain said, “whether it’s the Little East Conference tournament or the NCAA tournament.”

The problem for Keene State this season, Cain said, was that it sometimes did not approach non-playoff games with enough intensity. The Owls lost four of five games in December and then lost three of five from Jan. 31 to Feb. 15.

“In a lot of those games, I don’t believe that we showed up and played the way that we were capable in terms of an energy and focus, emotion standpoint,” Cain said.

Some players were thinking ahead to the postseason, Ozzella said. “Our minds weren’t focused in on just the one opportunity that we had that day to get a W."

Two players-only meetings after the most recent slump helped the team regroup, Ozzella said. Keene State has now won five of its last six contests.

Keene State’s NCAA tournament run this year is remarkably similar to its run last season. In 2016, the Owls beat Stockton on the Ospreys’ home court in the first round and then beat Middlebury, meaning that they have now eliminated NJAC and NESCAC teams in the tournament’s first weekend for two straight years. Like this season, Keene State won both games by very small margins, beating Stockton 72-71 in overtime and Middlebury 74-72. Then, like this year, Keene State faced Christopher Newport in the Sweet 16.

Last year the Owls lost to Christopher Newport, 74-62. The Captains advanced to the Final Four, where they fell to the eventual national champion St. Thomas, 66-62. This season Christopher Newport is 27-2 and won its second straight Capital Athletic Conference championship.

Keene State will be the underdog on Friday. But the Owls are talented and experienced, and—most importantly—they are finding ways to win.

"We’re confident that if we play well, we can play with anybody,” Cain said. “We believe in ourselves and trust each other and really think highly of what we’re capable of doing.”