Painting a picture of the difficult challenge ahead in tonight’s NCAA Division II East Regional final, St. Anselm College coach Keith Dickson declared his team was a clear-cut underdog against host Southern Connecticut State University.
“Trust me and, with all due respect to all the other Division II programs, Southern Connecticut has proven to be the best team in the region to this point,” said Dickson. “There’s no question in my mind. We’re the underdogs in this game and we’re going into this game with nothing to lose and everything to gain by giving our best shot.”
The Hawks (22-7) will face the red-hot top-seeded Owls (29-2) with an Elite Eight berth on the line. Tipoff at the Moore Field House in New Haven is 7 p.m. A win tonight would earn the Hawks a ticket to the Ford Center in Evansville, Ind., site of the NCAA Division II National Tournament, March 26-27 and 29.
Many basketball followers can make the case the Owls are currently among the top three Division II programs in the country, on par with nationally No. 1 ranked Metropolitan State College (28-1) of Denver and No. 2 ranked East Stroudsburg, Pa. (28-1).
Tarleton State (27-2) of Stephenville, Texas, is ranked third nationally in the latest NCAA poll, ahead of the No. 4 Owls, but the Texans lost Sunday to Midwestern State in its South Central regional semifinal game in Denver.
The Owls have won 18 straight games since their last loss, a 99-90 setback to Southern New Hampshire University on Jan. 8 in New Haven. The other loss was on Nov. 26 at Pace, 80-78 in overtime.
In their only meeting of the season on Jan. 14 at Stoutenburgh Gym, the Owls defeated the Hawks, 101-91. 5. The Owls outshot St. Anselm, 50.7 percent (38-75) to 43 percent (34-79), and held a 56.5 percent (13-23) to 34.6 percent (9-26) advantage from the three-point line.
“They won that game shooting the ball above their normal percentage and we shot below our average,” said Dickson. “If they shoot at that rate again, it’s going to be difficult to beat them. On our end, we need to do a better job of knocking down the open shots and finishing at the rim.”
The Owls possess this year’s Northeast-10 Player of the Year, senior guard Greg Langston, who averaged 21.1 points this season. and NE-10 Rookie of the Year, freshman Michael Mallory, averaging 15.8 points and 4.1 rebounds coming off the bench. Junior Tylon Smith, averaging 18.7 points, scored 32 points in the win against the Hawks. He and Langston each had 26 points in their 89-73 regional quarterfinal win against Bridgeport, and Smith lit up Franklin Pierce for 21 points in a 79-77 semifinal win Sunday.
Under Dickson (current record 533-291, 28th season), the Hawks are making their fourth appearance in the regional finals.
They broke through in 2000, beating Adelphi 76-72 for an Elite Eight berth. This season the Hawks won the NE-10 regular season, lost 85-58 to New Haven on the NE-10 tournament semifinals, but rebounded to beat Le Moyne 73-62 and Bloomfield 82-68 in the first two rounds of the East Regionals.
“I really think we’re in a similar situation as we were in 2000,” said Dickson. “That season we had a disappointing conference semifinal loss to AIC and came back to win the regionals. We had to beat Southern Connecticut in the semifinals that year (in New Haven) before beating Adelphi. Beating Le Moyne, after coming off the loss to New Haven, was huge because we regained our confidence and gave us a mindset that anything can happen from this point on.”
Dickson talked about his team willing itself to win and mentioned certain players needing to step up and actually reaching a higher level. That was the case Sunday when senior Dominic Borelli recorded his first career double-double with 16 points and a career-high 14 rebounds against Bloomfield.
“That was probably Dom’s best game ever,” said Dickson. “Against Le Moyne, (Roy) Mabrey scored 26 (19 by halftime) and Isaiah Nelsen gave us six off the bench. To win at this stage, you need your players to play above the average. We’re definitely going to need that from someone again today.”