Supporting cast lifts FPU Ravens to NCAA Div. II regional basketball crown
MANCHESTER - After a night when its stars were struggling, the Franklin Pierce University men's basketball team is going further than it ever has before, thanks in large part to its supporting cast.
The top-seeded Ravens claimed the NCAA Division II East Regional by finding a way to get past seventh-seeded Bridgeport, 57-52, Tuesday at the SNHU Fieldhouse.
Next stop: Louisville.
The Ravens (24-8) are headed the Elite Eight for the first time, a trip clinched when junior forward Ellis Cooper grabbed a rebound at one end of the floor and made a pair of free throws at the other end with 1.1 seconds left.
Cooper looked over at the FPU fans in the stands and smiled after he made the first freebie, which gave the Ravens an insurmountable four-point lead.
Cooper was named the most outstanding player of the tournament, joined on the team by two-time NE-10 player of the year Eric Jean-Guillaume and sophomore forward Ryen Vilmont.
Cooper and Jean-Guillaume have been the cornerstones a program that was making its second straight trip to the regional, but on a night when those two were held to a combined 18 points, it was the second-half contributions of Vilmont, Ant Lessane and Andre Blackwood that kept this season alive.
"We had to trust them and they stepped up," Jean-Guillaume said. "They gave us a big confidence boost."
Vilmont (18 points) knocked down three 3-pointers in the opening minutes of the half to help wipe out a six-point halftime deficit and kick-start an FPU offense that stalled in the first half.
Blackwood had 11 of his 13 points in the second half, including a 3-pointer as the shot clock was expiring to give the Ravens a 48-42 lead with 3:12 left. He had another basket after grabbing a loose ball at midcourt to make it 52-48 with 22 seconds left.
"That's why we are where we are," FPC coach David Chadbourne said. "We have two guys who can carry us, but we have other guys who can step up. We're a deep team."
Vilmont and Cooper sealed the win by making five of six free throws in the final 20 seconds.
The Ravens held the Purple Knights (23-10) to 20-for-60 shooting from the field, and held them to one field goal over an eight-minute stretch midway through the second half as they wiped out a nine-point deficit.
"We were defending well; that kept us in the game," Chadbourne said.
FPU had to come back after shooting 6-for-28 in the first half.
The Purple Knights didn't score their first points until nearly five minutes into the game, managed just 24 at the half and were still up six at the break.
FPU was stifled by Bridgeport's defense that was able to guard the perimeter and collapse in the lane to stop the Ravens from penetrating. The result was a horrid stretch that saw the Ravens make one field goal in nearly nine minutes as a 5-0 lead turned into a 15-8 deficit.
The difference in the half was Bridegeport leading scorer Darian David. While his teammates were a combined 5-for-20 from the field (0-for-5 on 3-pointers), David had 11 points in the half on 4-for-8 shooting. He had seven in 9-0 run that put the Knights up 15-8.
FPU had nobody to carry the load on its end as Jean-Guillaume struggled, scoring five points on 2-for-9 shooting.
"I went into the locker room and the whole message was, 'Calm down,'" Chadbourne said. "We were letting them hurry us. I think we settled down after that and then we started making some shots."