Game 1: #2 Bryant 85, #3 Sacred Heart 55
KEY STATS: Bryant 63.6% FG%, wins 39-20 rebounds, wins 52-16 paint points, wins 15-13 assists, wins 12-2 fastbreak points
We knew Bryant be short-handed after COVID-19 exposure to a group of players, but never would we have expected the roster that Jared Grasso put onto the floor on Saturday. With starters Michael Green III & Chris Childs and major role player Nathaniel Stokes all out, the Bulldogs were left with just six scholarship players and a walk-on for Saturday's semifinal game. To "round out" a thin roster, the 'Dawgs may have turned to some unlikely sources to throw a jersey on:
While Sacred Heart scored the first five points, Bryant freshman Erickson Bans hit a three to give the Bulldogs the lead, and never looked back. The Pioneers were able to keep the game within six points until redshirt senior Peter Kiss, wearing a different jersey after finding blood on his normal #32 home white, scored his first bucket to give the Bulldogs a nine-point advantage. After taking an eleven-point lead into the locker room, Bryant took advantage of a leaky SHU defense and created its own energy to start the second stanza on a 21-2 run. This effectively took Sacred Heart out of the game, and Bryant cruised to a 88-55 victory.
Bryant did everything it needed to, and more, especially without two of their best shooters. All five starters each played at least 32 minutes, each of them scored double-figures, and each shot over 50% from the field. Senior forward Hall Elisias had the most well-rounded game on the stat sheet, racking up 18 points and 9 rebounds - 4 of them on the offensive glass. Peter Kiss led all scorers with 19 points.
Jared Grasso's faith in his 7 dresses says it all: "I knew all week that I liked my group - they're tough and competitive. That's the way my guys are wired: they like playing when the lights are on, and this is what they came here to do...trying to win a championship."
Sophomore walk-on Timmy Kiggins was one of seven players available for Bryant on Saturday. PIC: David Silverman, @DSPics
40 straight minutes for Bryant Bulldog players is business as usual, as Grasso told us after the game. "We practice pretty hard," he told media after the game. "We have 60-minute scrimmages, so playing 40 minutes isn't really the hardest thing in the world. I asked them, 'If when I recruited you I told you you're going to play 40 minutes in a conference semi-final game, would you sign up for that?'"
Let's not play dumb...we know what their answers were.
Sacred Heart, normally a team full of shooters & willing passers, was anything but offensively productive. They shot a dismal 22% from downtown in the first half, and finished with an equally disappointing 33.9% from the field. "We were all in, but we just weren't ready to take the next step," said head coach Anthony Latina.
Game 2: #4 Mount St. Mary's 66, #1 Wagner 60
KEY STATS: Mount wins 38-32 rebounds, wins 36-28 paint points
The Wagner Seahawks were picked to finish on the lower end of virtually every single NEC preseason poll, but shocked many with their sudden ten-game winning streak - cruising by league contenders in Fairleigh Dickinson, LIU, and postseason-ineligible Merrimack. They'd even swept Mount St. Mary's on the road earlier in the year by way of a 61-39 blowout, followed by a 57-55 rock fight.
This time, it was Mount that had the last laugh.
Redshirt junior Nana Opoku throws up a floater in Mount St. Mary's 66-60 win over Wagner on Saturday. PIC: Derek Alvez
Mount started off with urgency and got out to a 7-1 lead early, but the remainder of the first half was as back-and-forth as it could've been. Wagner went on a 10-4 run to tie things at 11, and then tied it at 29-29, but ultimately it was Mount that went into the locker room with a 4-point lead.
Wagner, who hasn't played from behind often this season, came out of the locker room and went on a 9-3 run...immediately countered by a 12-1 run of their own to take a nine-point lead, 50-41. In the final minute, Wagner controlled a 57-56 lead and possession of the basketball. The Seahawks missed a three-pointer, Mount freshman Mezie Offurum scored a transition layup, and The Mount reclaimed its lead - one which it would not relinquish. Wagner freshman DeLonnie Hunt, who won the conference's Rookie of the Year award just 24 hours before, missed the front-end of a one-and-one, and the foul-fest ensued...one that yielded another 8 points for Mount in the final 35 seconds.
Even though Mount finished with only a 47.8% field goal percentage, they didn't need to be stellar offensively to win; Mount entered the game leading the conference in scoring defense, FG% defense, and defensive efficiency. They clearly did not skip a beat on Saturday, as they held Wagner to a dreary 36.1% field goal percentage. NEC Player of the Year Alex Morales was held to only 10 points and an uncharacteristic 3-for-15 from the field. Mount most certainly has junior Malik Jefferson to thank, who corralled 10 rebounds and added in 10 points. Junior All-NEC First Team selection Damian Chong Qui and redshirt junior Nana Opoku added in 14 points a piece.
NEXT UP: Northeast Conference Championship, #2 Bryant vs. #4 Mount St. Mary's
Tuesday 3/9, 7pm, Smithfield RI
National TV: ESPN2
Two teams that were supposed to square off in mid-February in Rhode Island will now get the chance to settle the "what-if's" on the court. An up-tempo Bryant Bulldogs group meets the best defense in the Northeast Conference: almost too perfect to script. Can Mount's Malik Jefferson and Nana Opoku be enough height to slow down Hall Elisias and Luis Hurtado in the paint? My guess is while they'll certainly give the Bryant front court some trouble, it won't matter. This game should be settled from beyond-the-arc and at the foul line - two areas where Bryant found success this year. Add in the fact that Bryant is one of 10 teams nationally that hasn't lost at home (10-0 after Saturday), and you have a recipe for success...regardless if it's seven guys or fifteen.
PREDICITON: Bryant 74, Mount St. Mary's 68