Hot Eagles streak into NCAA tourney

Posted March 02, 2009, at 10:33 p.m.

After losing six of their first seven games this season, a first-ever NCAA Division III Tournament berth looked like a pipe dream at best for the Husson College men’s basketball team.

Twenty games — 15 of them ending in victories — and a North Atlantic Conference title later, the Eagles are preparing to play a first-round NCAA tourney game.

The 16-11 Eagles have won six of their last seven heading into Friday night’s game against 20-5 Worcester Polytechnic Institute, the New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference tournament champ, at WPI’s Harrington Auditorium.

“This was a journey in a lot of different ways. It’s really satisfying, especially to see our four seniors go out as champions,” said Husson head coach Warren Caruso. “This was the goal at the beginning of the year and our seniors did a great job seeing it through this weekend and now we have an opportunity we’ve never had.”

Husson is one of three Maine men’s teams awarded an NCAA tourney berth. The others are Saint Joseph’s College of Standish (21-7) and the University of New England in Biddeford (24-4).

“I think it’s terrific to see that many Maine teams in it,” said Caruso. “Three Maine teams won three out of five possible conference titles and that’s a great representation.”

The Saint Joseph’s Monks earned their second NCAA berth after winning the Great Northeast Athletic Conference title with a 74-72 overtime win over Emmanuel College. The Monks play 20-6 Bridgewater State at Bridgewater, Mass., Thursday at 7 p.m. The winner travels to play Middlebury (Vt.) College on Saturday.

The 24-4 UNE Nor’easters will take on 24-3 Farmingdale State of Long Island, N.Y., at Rhode Island College’s Murray Center in Providence Friday at 8 p.m. The Nor’easters earned their bid by beating Colby-Sawyer College for the Commonwealth Coast Conference tournament crown. The UNE-Farmingdale winner will take on the winner of Friday’s R.I. College-MIT on Saturday.

“That’s the lowest win total of any conference championship team I’ve had here,” said Caruso, whose team won its seventh league title in his 15-year tenure. “We got off to a very slow start, but we still felt like we had an outstanding chance to be a championship team after Christmas break, if we could play 40 consistent minutes of ball. I think that’s what we did this weekend in back-to-back games.”

Husson edged No. 3 University of Maine Farmington 67-65 in overtime in the NAC semis and then topped No. 1 Thomas College 73-60 in the final.

As he has all season, tourney MVP Matt MacKenzie, was literally the Eagles’ big man.

“His emergence through the year and how we, as a group, learned to trust each other and play around him was a huge part in getting us to this point,” Caruso said.

With the 6-foot-5 senior forward from Warren averaging 18.7 points and 5.8 rebounds a game, it’s no surprise what Husson’s basic game plan is.

“Get Matty the ball. That’s really what it’s all about,” said Caruso. “Our offense is designed to play inside-out. We’ve had quality inside play from other people, but his emergence was the reason we’ve been able to be this successful.”

Other key players are junior guard Brock Bradford (13.8 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 5.0 apg) of Kenduskeag; sophomore forward Jay Uhrin (9.8 ppg, 2.7 rpg), a Winterport native who transferred from the University of Maine; and senior guard Nick Perras (8.0 ppg, 4.4 rpg), an all-tournament pick with MacKenzie; senior forward Scott Kissinger (7.8 ppg, 4.7 rpg); and senior guard Blaine Meehan (7.4 ppg, 3.6 rpg) of Winterport.

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