The Husson University men’s basketball team faces a tall challenge when it opens NCAA Division III tournament play Friday night.
Host Williams College of Williamstown, Massachusetts, ranked 19th in the country and an at-large choice for the NCAAs after reaching the semifinals of the New England Small College Athletic Conference tournament, will have a height advantage at every position on the court against the Eagles with a starting lineup measuring 6-foot-8, 6-8, 6-7, 6-5 and 6-3.
That group is led by two-time All-NESCAC first-team honoree Bobby Casey, a 6-3 senior guard who averages 18.5 points, 5. 2 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game, and 6-8 senior forward James Heskett, the 2018 NESCAC player of the year and a second-team all-conference choice this winter after averaging 17.0 points.
“We know they’re a big team and they’ve been a pretty good defensive team all year so that’s pretty much what we’ve prepared for this week in practice,” Husson sophomore guard Justin Thompson of East Millinocket said.
The Husson-Williams game is set for a 7:30 p.m. start from the John Wesley Chandler Center. The survivor advances to Saturday’s 7 p.m. second-round game against the winner of Friday’s 5:30 p.m. opener between at-large selection Plattsburgh (N.Y.) State (20-6) and Atlantic East Conference champion Gwynedd-Mercy (19-8) of Gwynedd-Mercy, Pennsylvania.
Husson (17-10) takes a four-game winning streak into its seventh NCAA tournament appearance under longtime head coach Warren Caruso.
While the North Atlantic Conference champions have yet to win an NCAA game, the Eagles have been competitive in most of those previous outings. Three of the losses have come by six points or less, including an 86-83 overtime defeat at Williams in 2011.
The Eagles are led by NAC tournament most valuable player and All-NAC first-team choice Justin Martin, a 6-6 senior forward from Winslow. Martin leads Husson in scoring (15.1 ppg) and rebounding (an NAC-best 9.3 rpg) and is the school’s career leader with more than 200 blocked shots.
Sophomore guard D.J. Bussey (13.0 ppg) and Thompson, a second-team All-NAC choice who has averaged 12.0 points 5.6 rebounds and 2.8 assists, are other key performers for the Eagles, as are freshman point guard Justice Kendall (9.2 ppg, 4.0 apg) and 6-5 freshman forward Brett Cunningham, who has contributed 8.0 points and 3.9 rebounds off the Husson bench.
Husson entered the NAC tournament as the No. 2 seed and defeated No. 3 SUNY Canton 85-74 in the semifinals and No. 4 Thomas College of Waterville 82-67 in last Saturday’s final behind 26 points, nine rebounds and four blocked shots from Martin.
The NAC conference title is Husson’s seventh overall and third in the last four years.
Williams (20-6) is making its 17th NCAA tournament appearance and is 47-15 all-time in NCAA play. The Ephs have advanced to eight Final Fours and won the 2003 NCAA title.
“We know we’re playing the best we’ve played all season really,” Thompson said, “so I think we just have to feel confident going into this weekend and give it our best shot.”