Buckle Up: Bryant looks to avenge Sacred Heart in NEC Semifinal

After losing the last five to the Pioneers, Bryant looks to make program history with a win on Saturday


"Starks pulls up for three & the season...and he missed it..."


It was a game Bryant had trailed throughout - they went into the locker room trailing the Sacred Heart Pioneers 38-30. Now, with less than 10 seconds to go, Bryant cut its deficit to 63-60. Senior Dyami Starks, who finished his Bryant career in 2015 as one of the best players in program history, missed a three-pointer to tie it up. But sophomore Dan Garvin corralled the miss, dished it out to senior guard Joe O'Shea - who was wearing a face mask over his nose - for one last desperation heave.


"It's kind of a blur," O'Shea told the Providence Journal after the game. "Someone almost knocked it away, I stumbled, I grabbed it and just tossed it up. It felt good, but I thought it might be a little short."


College basketball writers and fans alike dubbed the next few seconds as "The Shot Heard 'Round Smithfield:" an instant classic in Bryant program history.


Tristan Hobbes' "Are you kidding me?!" call remains immortal for NEC hoops fans.

March 5, 2015 still stands as the last time Bryant has hosted a Northeast Conference playoff game at the Chace Athletic Center, and its last playoff win. On Saturday, the Bulldogs will snap their streak: exactly six years and one day to the date.


For Bryant, the "miracle season" playing out in front of our eyes arrives at a critical juncture. We knew Bryant's potential after losing to Syracuse by just one point at the Carrier Dome, picking off UMass, and sweeping four separate in-conference opponents. The Bulldogs finished 9-0 at home - one of only ten teams nationally to be unbeaten at home in the regular season.


On Sunday, however, a positive COVID-19 test put their season in jeopardy; due to contact tracing protocols, the last series against Mount St. Mary's was cancelled, leaving Bryant to finish its regular season at 14-5 (10-4 NEC). With a Wagner sweep of Merrimack, the Seahawks took the NEC regular season title; Bryant locked up the two-seed, while Sacred Heart won the #3 seed by virtue of tiebreaker over #4 Mount St. Mary's.


Fittingly enough, Bryant and Sacred Heart will square off once again in the NEC Semifinal matchup. Both vastly different programs from their last playoff meeting in 2015, the Pioneers have played themselves out of their own proverbial holes in the last few years. This season, Sacred Heart head coach Anthony Latina has been authoring his own success story. After losing three starters by way of the transfer market in EJ Anosike (Tennessee), Koreem Ozier (Louisiana-Monroe), and Cameron Parker (Montana), it appeared SHU was destined for another dark period; they were picked in many polls to finish last in the NEC. Instead, Sacred Heart willed themselves into the playoffs, searching for their sixth straight win against Bryant.


It's an NEC pairing that's carried historical significance: a phenomenal 2015 quarterfinal, a triple-overtime game in 2017, two overtime contests in the same season, a 209-point game (with no overtimes!!) in 2019; plenty of good talent, plenty of all-conference selections, plenty of heartbreak.


We get to relive it again on Saturday - buckle your seatbelts. Here are three quick-hitters as we dive into Leg I of the NEC Tournament.


Sacred Heart needs to reach into the bag. Those who have watched the Pioneers this year preach three routine areas of success this year: depth, chemistry, and transition offense. If you had raved this off-season about Sacred Heart's depth, you probably would've got some funny looks...an they'd be warranted. With an uncertain rotation and too many newcomers to bank on, it's safe to say SHU being deep is a big surprise. But sophomore Tyler Thomas, who won the NEC's Most Improved Player Award on Friday, and junior Aaron Clarke - originally thought to be the team's only weapons - have only been the gateways into more promising players on the roster. Freshman Mike Sixsmith got a nod to the All-NEC Rookie team, while first-year forwards Matas Spokas and Bryce Johnson have both been great additions to the Pios. Latina has the luxury of using a deep bench, and in a game where bench minutes will be crucial - for one reason or another - this is where Sacred Heart can excel.


On the total opposite end of the spectrum, guys will be getting major minutes for Bryant. We're well aware that Bryant's roster will be limited on Saturday due to COVID-19 contact tracing protocol. Per sources, the Bulldogs have starters who will not be eligible for Saturday's game, and Tuesday's hypothetical championship. We asked Jared Grasso what the game plan could be in terms of a rotation, and as we expected, he divulged close to nothing. "We've got enough to do what we wanna do," he told the media on Thursday. "I like the group that we have competing." That will most assuredly mean major minutes for the starters that are suiting up on Saturday - expect the usual suspects to be taking a major share of Bryant's minutes. “When the opportunity comes, you have to take advantage of it," he continued, "and throughout this year I think guys have taken advantage of opportunities when they’ve had them.”


It's time for fireworks - so sit back, relax, and enjoy it. How fun is playoff basketball? I spoke with family friend and longtime Sacred Heart head coach Dave Bike for a few minutes today, and he was pretty excited to see his protégé Anthony Latina in the playoffs after the year they've had. He's equally excited to see former opponent Jared Grasso see what he can do with his limited roster: in Bike's words, "if there's anyone that can do it, it's him."


Grasso made a promise that he'd cut down a net in his time at Bryant - in his April 2018 introductory press conference in Smithfield, he told the crowd that he keeps a small piece of net in his wallet wherever he goes, to remind him of the end goal. On Thursday, he reflected: “It’s exciting going in with this group, because I know how much it means to them,” said Grasso. “I know how badly they want to win & how badly they want to go to the NCAA Tournament.”

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