The East Coast Conference Championship provided the last piece to the NCAA Tournament puzzle. Here’s how it went down in the nation’s capital:
ST. THOMAS AQUINAS 80 DAEMEN 63
The third time was the charm for St. Thomas Aquinas, which used a 15-0 burst to open the second half and pull away from Daemen in Washington for its first ECC Tourney title after being the bridesmaid to Bridgeport the past two seasons. The Spartans led from start to finish, opening up the contest with eight straight points on the way to a 28-12 bulge. The Wildcats – the conference’s newest team and playing in their first ECC tourney championship - weathered the early storm, closing within 43-42 by halftime. It was all STAC from there however, as the top seed kept Daemen off the scoreboard for the first 6:37 of the second period in widening the margin to 58-42. The gap dwindled to single digits just once thereafter – at 60-51 following a 3-pointer by Torrence Dyck (22 points and six rebounds in his final game) with 11:48 to play, and it was still a 67-57 game with 4:30 left when the Spartans embarked on a killer 13-2 run, bookended by a pair of Justin Reyes baskets, to put the game out of reach at 80-59 with 1:33 remaining. The league’s Player of the Year amassed 19 points, 17 rebounds, four assists, three steals and three blocks for Aquinas, which extended its Division 2-best win streak to 20 games heading into its first-ever NCAA appearance. Chaz Watler – who was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player – generated 20 points and seven rebounds for the Spartans, who also landed Shaq McFarlan (16 points, five assists) and Rookie of the Year Jonathan Lawton (11 points off the bench) in double digits. Arif Mehmetaj racked up 16 points and 11 boards for the Wildcats, who were outshot (47%-30%) and outrebounded (49-41) but stayed within striking distance most of the afternoon thanks in part to a more productive outing at the foul line (15-20 to 8-12). Both sides finished with identical 14/13 assist-turnover lines. St. Thomas Aquinas becomes the first team not named Bridgeport or LIU Post to win this tournament in the last nine years, and the team's 20 consecutive wins are the most in the region heading into the NCAAs since LIU Post (then C.W. Post) won its first 27 games in 2008-09 (For good measure, Bentley went 30-0 the year before).
Seedings for the upcoming East Regional were announced during the NCAA’s selection show on Sunday night, and for the first time ever, Holy Family will host the event as the top seed. Their first NCAA game since 2008 will be against defending regional champion Southern New Hampshire, which impressively swept through the NE-10 Tournament yet somehow garnered only the eight seed. Another Manchester team will play another school from the City of Brotherly Love as #2 St. Anselm faces #7 Philadelphia. #3 Southern Connecticut will take on #6 St. Thomas Aquinas and NE-10 rivals Stonehill and Bentley will square off in the 4-5 game. The opening-round games will begin Saturday afternoon, with the semifinals Sunday night and the championship game on Tuesday, March 15 with that survivor flying down to Frisco, Texas to represent the region at the Elite-8. Three of the four regional quarterfinal match-ups will feature teams that have already met during the regular season.