by Patrick Gustavson
For the first time in four seasons, Central Connecticut’s men’s basketball team has reached the Northeast Conference tournament.
Entering this weekend’s games, the Blue Devils needed either one win, or one loss by Sacred Heart in order to clinch their spot in the postseason.
That did not happen Thursday night as the Blue Devils were defeated by Wagner at home by just two points. Sacred Heart defeated Bryant the same night, meaning the final spot in the conference tournament would come down to the last day of the regular season.
Before the Blue Devils even tipped off against Saint Francis (BKN), Sacred Heart was defeated by LIU Brooklyn, meaning Central had clinched their spot, regardless of the game’s outcome.
However, head coach Donyell Marshall withheld that information from his players.
“I told them just now [after the game],” Marshall said. “I didn’t want them to relax. We had the mindset that we wanted to earn it. We didn’t want LIU to have to hand it to us. We wanted to earn it.”
And earn it, they did.
Following a back-and-forth affair throughout the entire game, the Blue Devils saw themselves down six with two and a half minutes remaining. But following buckets from Mustafa Jones and Tyler Kohl, the team saw themselves down by just two points.
With just 21 seconds left, junior point guard Eric Bowles sank two clutch free-throws, sending the game into overtime.
The Blue Devils took care of business in the overtime period, leading to their 78-75 victory, led by Joe Hugley, who had a game-high 20 points off the bench.
Prior to the game, the team honored seniors Mustafa Jones and Shakaris Laney, two players who had never reached the NEC tournament in their four-year career.
“The past couple years have been depressing and not great,” Jones said. “And today, to go out there and earn it is amazing. It’s a dream come true. We’re all very excited.”
“This is honestly the best feeling I’ve had here, basketball-wise,” Laney said.
Both players played key roles in the team’s victory. Marshall even called Laney the x-factor.
“Shak went out and played defense,” Marshall said. “He set the tone for us. Once he set the tone, guys went out there and played defense.”
In addition to his stellar defensive play, Laney also added seven points, just one point shy of his season-high.
Jones added 14 points of his own, including two emphatic slam dunks. However, it was his performance on the boards (eight rebounds) that led to praise from Marshall.
“We’ve been trying to get him to rebound for two months, and he got rebounds today,” Marshall said, jokingly.
The Blue Devils face a tall task heading into the tournament. They will travel to Staten Island on Wednesday to take on number one seeded Wagner. The Seahawks finished 14-4 in NEC play, and did not lose a game at home all season.
“We’re going to have to be on our A-game. It’s going to take us leaving it all out there. They’re great at home. They’re going to have a big crowd. We have to outplay them, we’re the underdogs,” Marshall said, on what his team has to do to win.
Jones also feels his team has the ability to pull off the upset.
“We should have gotten them here on Thursday,” he said. “I think we sent them a warning. You aren’t going to walk all over us just because you’re the one seed.”
Overall, the chance to compete for an NEC championship has Marshall filled with excitement.
“It’s March Madness. That’s what these kids play for. I can’t wait,” Marshall said.