We are almost there. One more night of regular season games before the America East Conference Basketball tournament gets underway on Saturday, March 4 with quarterfinals play. The top two seeds are locked up. The Vermont Catamounts will be the #1 seed and will host games for as long as they stay in it. The UMass Lowell River Hawks are the #2 seed and have home court through the semi-finals. After that, it gets a little blurry, as the three and four seeds are still up for grabs. No one has been eliminated from the postseason yet and we will explain that as well. Let’s set the stage for what should be a great last night of America East Conference hoops.
For the seventh straight year, the Vermont Catamounts (19-10, 13-2) have claimed the regular season championship in AE. The only active streak that is longer is Gonzaga who has won the West Coast Conference for 11 straight years. The Catamounts finished the year strong winning eleven in a row with one more left to play. On Tuesday night they will have their senior night before what should be a packed Patrick Gym. Vermont leads the league in 3-point FG Made with 249 in 29 games (8.6 a game). Their offense scored an average of 72 points a night and they allowed 67.7 a game. Senior Robbie Duncan still leads in both assists (127 in 29G, 4.4 a game) and in assists/turnover ratio (127A, 40TO, 3.2 ratio). Duncan is also 6th in rebounding at 7.3 a game.
Their opponent on Tuesday night is in a must-win situation. The UAlbany Great Danes (8-22, 3-12) must beat Vermont to have any chance of playing this weekend. On Saturday night, in another must-win, they defeated NJIT 82-68 to keep their season alive. Four of the five starters finished in double-figures led by freshman Jonathan Beagle who put up a double-double performance of 17 points and 13 rebounds. It would earn him America East Rookie of the Week honors for the ninth time this season. The game was a back-and-forth affair with 15 lead changes and seven ties. The Great Danes had to survive their bench being outscored by the Highlanders bench 25-8. No doubt Tuesday night will be a tall task for UAlbany on the road.
NJIT (7-21, 4-11) will head to New Hampshire (13-14, 8-7) for a big game for both teams. The Highlanders do have a little breathing room based on where UAlbany will be ending their year. Still, the Highlanders can take nothing to chance. The first meeting between the two took place on February 1 at NJIT. The Wildcats came away with a 74-67 overtime win. The Highlanders will have to contend with junior forward Clarence Daniels who averaged a double-double of 15 points and 10 rebounds a contest. The Wildcats are second in the league in scoring defense giving up 67 points a game while scoring 66.7 a game. That number is the worst in the league. The Highlanders have the second-best opponent 3-point FG percentage in the league at 0.33% ( 212-of-643). A win by the Wildcats and some help from others games should allow them to begin the playoff at home on Saturday as either the third or fourth seed.
Maine (12-16, 6-9) finished at home on Tuesday night hosting Bryant (17-11, 8-7). For the Black Bears, the 12 wins are the most since the 2012-13 season. A big reason for the turnaround has been the play of guard Kellen Tynes who leads the conference in steals with 94. He is eight shy of the conference’s all-time mark of 102 set by Speedy Claxton. His average of 3.4 steals per game not only led the league but also the country. He also is the minutes leader in the league averaging 35 minutes a night. On Saturday, he helped his team win for just the second time all season on the road. In the 71-67 overtime win at Binghamton, Tynes had eight steals to go along with 18 points. It earned him his second straight America East Player of the Week award. The Black Bears scored 14 points off of 16 Bearcats turnovers. Double-doubles by Kristians Feierbergs (14 points, 10 rebounds) and Jaden Clayton (10 points, 10 boards) helped the cause.
Bryant finds themselves in a dogfight for the last two home seeds. A win at Maine would give them a home game Saturday for sure. A loss could do the same if the combination ends in their favor. The Bulldogs have the best-scoring offense in the league averaging 80 points a game and the second-best margin at seven. However, they are next to last in defense giving up 74 points a game. They are the second-best free-throw shooting team in the league at 75%. #1 in team defensive rebounding at 28.8 a game, and #1 in combined team rebounding at 39.2. One problem the Bulldogs have is turning the ball over as they have done it 376 times for an average of 13.4 a game which plays right into the Black Bears’ hands as they lead the league in steals with 266 (9.5 a game). Sherif Gross-Bullock leads the conference in scoring for Bryant at 17.6 a contest.
The other team in that fight for home court on Saturday is UMBC (17-13, 7-8). The Retrievers have lost three in a row at the wrong time of the season. They finished their season at Binghamton (12-16, 8-7). UMBC had last weekend off to try and right the ship heading into their final regular season game. Three-point shooting was a staple of this team early in the season. Since then, those numbers have dropped somewhat. They are fourth in the league in 3-point makes at 246 in 30G for an average of 8.2 a game. They are dead last in opponent 3-point FG percentage at 38.2% (262-of-686) They are the best free-throw shooting team in the league at 75% 9 355-of-473), and have the best assists/ turnovers ratio at 1.40 ( 310TO, 434 AST.) The Bearcats are finishing up a 3-game homestand in which they have gone 1-1. On Saturday, they let one get away from them. They cannot afford to do that again. They are still in the mix for a home game on Saturday with a win. The Bearcats’ best players will need to show up Tuesday night and produce.
The one team that has nothing to worry about for now is the UMass Lowell River Hawks (24-7, 11-5.) On Saturday, they will host their first-ever home playoff game. There have been a number of firsts for the program this year. The first twenty-win season, the 11 conference wins, and their first unbeaten home regular season at 15-0. One of five schools across the nation that can make that claim. The River Hawks ranked 47th in the nation in defensive rebounding, and Abdoul Karim-Coulibaly ranks 41st in the nation in offensive rebounding per game at 3.11. UMass Lowell has reached 70 points 22 times this year, and 90 points six times including their final game vs UNH when they scored 92. They averaged 78.5 points a game which has them ranked 42nd in the country. When they knock down at least seven 3-point shots in a game, the team is 15-1.
Next week we’ll look back at the quarterfinals and look ahead to the semi-finals in the America East Playoffs.
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