WILLIMANTIC, Conn. – The Eastern Connecticut State University men's basketball team converted nine of ten free throws after Keene State College had whittled a 24-point deficit to eight with three minutes left as the Warriors posted their 42nd straight Little East Conference regular-season home win with a 79-66 decision Saturday afternoon at Francis E. Geissler Gymnasium.
With its fourth straight victory, Eastern (12-3, 6-1 LEC) maintains a share of first place in the conference with UMass Dartmouth, which downed homestanding Castleton University, 75-63, Saturday. In losing to Eastern for the sixth straight time in a rematch of the last two LEC tournament title games, Keene (8-7, 4-3 LEC) drops from third place into fourth, two games back of the leaders and a half-game behind Western Connecticut.
Junior guard Carlos Gonzalez (Springfield, MA) and freshman forward Seth Thomas (Norwich) combined to hit 13 free throws in 14 attempts in the second half as the Warriors were able to hold off a furious Keene rally. Trailing by 21, Keene outscored Eastern 15-2 over three minutes –seven of the points by senior forward Ty Nichols – to slice the Eastern lead to eight, 70-62 with three minutes left. Over the final 2:24, however, the Warriors connected on nine of ten free throws (20-of-25 in the game) to pull away.
With Eastern leading by those eight points, Thomas swished a pair of free throws and after Nichols dropped in a three-pointer, Gonzalez sank a pair to make it 74-65. After Nichols missed a three, Eastern senior forward Leonel Hyatt (Greenwich) grabbed the rebound, and senior guard Donny Craig (Waterford) hit a free throw to return the lead to double-digits, 75-65. Gonzalez later converted four free throws in a span of 20 seconds around another Keene missed three-pointer to seal the win.
In the second half, Thomas totaled 13 of his 20 points – one shy of his collegiate-high – going 5-of-6 from the stripe and 2-of-3 from distance. Gonzalez sat out nearly nine minutes after being tagged with his third and fourth fouls seconds apart but still had 16 of his team-high 21 points after the break. Gonzalez left the game with 13:22 remaining and the Warriors up by 22 and returned with 4:54 remaining and Eastern still holding a healthy 14-point, 70-56 advantage. Gonzalez was 8-of-8 from the stripe with two three-pointers, two assists and no turnovers in 12 second-half minutes.
Junior guard Jake Collagan (Wethersfield) – who played his freshman season at Keene -- contributed 18 points and Hyatt grabbed nine rebounds in addition to connecting on both of his field goal attempts after going 7-of-7 from the floor in Thursday's LEC home win over the University of Southern Maine.
In a battle of the LEC's top-ranked offense (Keene) and No. 1 defense (Eastern), the Warriors limited the Owls to 20 less points than their season average. Eastern gives up an average of 67.4 points per game.
Nichols, the New England scoring leader ranked third nationally at 26.1 points per game, struck for a career-high 40 in 40 minutes. The 6-foot-3 inch Nichols was 13-of-28 from the floor but only 3-of-13 from long range. He also shared team-high rebounding honors with eight. He was the only Keene player in double figures.
Eastern visits UMass Dartmouth Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. in matchup of LEC co-leaders.