BENNINGTON, Vt. – The Southern Vermont College men's basketball team is the 2018 New England Collegiate Conference (NECC) Champion as the top seed took down No. 2 Becker College 67-62 Saturday night in a close-fought title game at the Mountaineer Athletic Center.
SVC stormed out to a 14-point upper hand in the onset of the tilt before the Hawks came back through the midpoint of the first half to stay in it and eventually go in front. After Southern Vermont brought a slim 33-32 edge into the locker room, the lead changed 10 times through the final 20 minutes as the trophy was up for grabs.
With the score knotted at 62-62 with 48 seconds on the clock, Southern Vermont drilled a 3-pointer to take the upper hand. Becker missed a game-tying triple before sending the Mountaineers to the line, but SVC couldn't connect on the front-end of its 1-and-1 opportunity to give the visitors one last chance. After back-to-back timeouts, the Mountaineers forced the Hawks to turn the ball over in the waning seconds and used one final breakaway for a buzzer-beating layup and the five-point victory.
The Mountaineers now await Monday's NCAA Division III Selection Show to see who they will take on in the opening round of the national tournament; that announcement will come at 1 p.m. and can be viewed at https://www.ncaa.com/news/basketball-men/article/2018-02-26/ncaa-reveal-diii-mens-basketball-field-monday-february-26. SVC's first game of the regional will be scheduled for Friday, March 2 with the time and location to be determined.
Southern Vermont improves to 22-5 going into the NCAA's while Becker finishes the year at 15-12 overall. Saturday was the third-straight meeting in the NECC finals between the two sides and the fourth consecutive matchup between SVC and the Hawks in the Conference playoffs.
SVC senior Mike Pierre (Melrose, N.Y.) dropped a game-high 24 points while adding four rebounds and a pair of steals en route to being named the postseason's Most Valuable Player; he had 22 points and six boards in Thursday's semifinal victory over Lesley University. Saturday was a bit of redemption for the Mountaineer after he was unable to play in last year's championship game.
"I'm at a loss for words," Pierre said following the celebration. "It feels so amazing to be here, especially after last year with my injury. It was a burn in my heart to get back here, push us to the championship, and lead our team. Winning the championship means everything to this group; it was a journey, it was a great experience, and to be here and win is the best feeling in the world."
After receiving the MVP plaque, Pierre was immediately joined at midcourt by his father—an experience that was extremely meaningful for the Southern Vermont senior.
"It was amazing because my dad was the one who introduced me to basketball when I was a really young kid," he said. "There've been countless nights when he was out in the driveway practicing with me, and he always told me to stay positive. I've been through a lot with basketball—both in high school and my last college; to come here and share that moment with him was really special."
Mountaineer junior Josh Borders (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)—who hit the go-ahead triple in the last minute—was also selected to the NECC All-Tournament Team; he had 11 points and a pair of steals on Saturday. Classmate Kyle Depollar (Rockville, Md.) had another nine points and three steals—including the final swipe with just seconds left—in 28 minutes off the bench while fellow junior Andre Hodo (Rockville, Md.) had eight points along with a team-best nine rebounds.
Becker junior Kareem Davis (Lowell, Mass.) notched a team-leading 20 points in addition to five boards, and sophomore Antonio White Jr. (Middletown, Conn.) tallied 13 points and a game-high 10 rebounds for the double-double and a spot on the All-Tournament Team. Hawk senior Samuel Durodola (Rosedale, N.Y.) chipped in with 10 points, four rebounds, and three assists while garnering Becker's second spot on the All-Tournament squad.
SVC went 25-65 (38.5 percent) from the floor as the Hawks shot 36.4 percent (20-55) from field goal range. Becker grabbed a 42-37 advantage in rebounds, but Southern Vermont used its 12-11 edge in offensive boards to outscore the visitors 15-14 in second-chance points. The Mountaineers committed just 10 turnovers to the Hawks' 17 and took a 26-14 upper hand in points off giveaways.
"It feels really, really good," said Southern Vermont fifth-year head coach Dan Engelstad when talking about how it felt to once again win the title, "mostly because this was a special group of guys who deserved this. They worked really hard for us this year, and they battled a lot. We had a crazy week last week with illnesses and injuries; so to piece it all together and be the last team standing is very rewarding—because they earned it. I'm proud of each and every one of them, and I'm proud of our staff. Now it gets really exciting and really fun trying to prepare for the next tournament."
Engelstad gave credit to his opponent while also being overjoyed with how his team responded after letting go of its early lead.
"Becker made a push; they're tough and don't go away," he said. "They're champions, and they have it in their DNA; they weren't scared. I thought the biggest thing for us was in the second half when we kept withstanding their runs. After they went up by four, it was rewarding to see us just stay solid, get stops, push it out in transition, and have all our guys chip in and lock in defensively."
The Mountaineer coach reflected on not only how Pierre performed throughout the season and the playoffs—but seniors Daemond Carter (Forestville, Md.) and Claude Payne (South Plainfield, N.J.) as well.
"It's a storybook ending for Mike as he's done playing in this gym," Engelstad commented. "For him to go out as a champion—along with all our seniors—is special. Not a lot of guys get to have that last taste in their mouth, in their gym, of cutting down the nets. Since last year, Mike's been such a force; we're going to miss him, we're going to miss Daemond, and we're going to miss Claude, because they provide so much for our basketball team."
SVC is making its third-ever trip to the NCAA tournament after the program won the Great Northeast Athletic Conference in 2003 and the NECC crown in 2016. Engelstad believes his experience from two years ago is going to bode well as he knows what to expect this time around.
"How the whole process works," he said as being his biggest takeaway from '16. "I hadn't ever been a part of it at the DIII level, so now knowing all the ins-and-outs, and how to prepare, is going to be a big key for us. We'll have our guys ready; I know they're looking forward to the challenge."
Pierre wasted no time in finding his rhythm as he scored seven points to help Southern Vermont stake a 12-0 lead off the jump. Becker came right back, however, with a 14-2 run highlighted by five Durodola points and a Davis triple to get back within one. The lead traded hands six times through the last nine minutes of the period with Pierre connecting on a pair of freebies with 10 seconds left to register 14 points in the half and give his team a minor advantage.
The back-and-forth continued through the second stanza with the score being tied on eight occasions—four of those coming in the last six minutes of action. The Hawks tallied six unanswered points to go on top 58-54 with 4:08 on the clock, but SVC answered with an 8-2 run which included six points from Pierre. After Davis hit a pair from the charity stripe to tie it up, the championship bout went into the final minute even at 62-62.
On the next possession, Southern Vermont grabbed an offensive rebound—allowing Borders to take a kick-out pass and knock down a trey from the right edge of the arc; a lengthy meeting between the officials ensued as they discussed the resetting of the shot clock after the original miss, but they came out of the huddle with the decision that the basket counted.
After an errant Becker attempt at the tie, SVC was fouled with 19 ticks left to go. The Mountaineers couldn't make it a two-possession game, however, and gave the Hawks one last chance. The visitors used a timeout—only to have Southern Vermont call one of its own after seeing how Becker set up on the floor.
With time running out, Depollar made an outstanding defensive effort to take the ball away from the Hawks, barely keep himself from sliding onto the sideline, and get it to junior Aaron Murray (Camden, N.J.); Murray lobbed a leading pass down the court to Borders who went to the rack and got a final layup up in the air before the horn. The buzzer sounded as the ball fell through the net, and the Mountaineer faithful rushed the court to celebrate SVC's third-ever conference championship.
2018 NECC Men's Basketball All-tournament Team
Most Valuable Player: Mike Pierre – Southern Vermont College (Sr. – Melrose, N.Y.)
Josh Borders – Southern Vermont College (Jr. – Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)
Samuel Durodola – Becker College (Sr. – Rosedale, N.Y.)
Antonio White Jr. – Becker College (So. – Middletown, Conn.)
Marquise Johnson – Lesley University (Sr. – Hampton, Va.)
Domenico Santiago – Mitchell College (Jr. – Port St. Lucia, Fla.)
– #LetsGoSVC –