KEENE, N.H. – Juniors Jake Collagan (Wethersfield) and Carlos Gonzalez (Springfield, MA) combined for their team's final 12 points over the last four minutes as the No. 2-seeded Eastern Connecticut State University men's basketball team moved into its third straight Little East Conference championship game with a 79-74 victory over No. 3 seed University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Friday night at Spaulding Gymnasium on the Keene State College campus.
Eastern (20-6), a winner of 20 games for the ninth time in the last ten years, faces No. 1 seed Keene State College (19-7) Saturday at 5 p.m. in the championship game, with the winner gaining an automatic NCAA Division III tournament berth. Keene defeated No. 4 Western Connecticut, 107-80, in Friday's first semifinal.
Keene is making its fifth straight trip to the final, having won the first two times before losing at No. 1 Eastern each of the past two seasons. The clubs are meeting in the final at Keene for the first time after splitting the regular-season series. The Owls won over Eastern, 81-76 six days ago at Keene that gave the hosts the No. 1 seed and a share of the regular-season title with Eastern. The Warriors had won outright the previous five regular-season championships.
Friday, neither team led by more than seven points and the Warriors never trailed after taking a 37-34 lead into the break. After sophomore guard Cory Muckle (Westbrook) sank two free throws to make it 67-63 with 5:23 left, Collagan and Gonzalez combined on Eastern's final 12 points. Collagan converted a runner from the left side and followed with a pull-up jumper that made it 73-70 after UMass (19-8) had closed to within one on a three-point field goal from Arinze Obiora.
Gonzalez dropped in an arching shot in the paint to make it 75-70, and later sanke four free throws over the final 36 seconds to seal the team's second victory over UMD this year in three tries.
The Warriors survived anxious moments in the final seconds. Inbounding under their own basket with a 77-72 lead, Eastern lost possession, then committed a foul when trying to recover. Marcus Azor of UMD swished the resulting two free throw attempts with 15.7 to make it a one possession game, but Gonzalez then canned two free throws seconds later to make it 79-74 and the Corsairs missed a pair of shots in the final seconds.
Eastern cemented the win at foul line, cashing in 20 of 24 tries while UMD managed just 8-of-16.
Collagan (21 points) and Gonzalez (20) led both teams in scoring. Collagan was 9-of-18 from the floor. Gonzalez and freshman forward Seth Thomas (Norwich) combined on 13-of-15 from the stripe, Thomas connecting on seven of eight and matching Muckle with 13 points. Thomas topped Eastern with eight rebounds, senior forward Leonel Hyatt (Greenwich) grabbing seven. Gonzalez also had five rebounds and matched Collagan with four assists.
Azor, a freshman guard, had a team-high 16 points and led both squads with 11 rebounds and six assists before his fifth foul sent Gonzalez to the line for the final two free throws.