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But 'rebuilding' Warriors good enough to gain No. 2 seed in LEC tourney


ecsuwhoop0910300dpi_3183.jpgGORHAM, Maine - The opportunity for a share of a sixth Little East Conference women's basketball regular-season championship was within reach for Eastern Connecticut State University Saturday, but another in a series of back-and-forth games with the University of Southern Maine fell the hosts way this time in a 58-57 loss at the Warren Hill Gymnasium.

 With four new starters this year, the Warriors (above) ended just one win short of a share of another Little East Conference regular-season title.

Knowing that it was a virtual lock for second place and with it a first-round tournament bye, Eastern (17-8, 10-4 little east) fell short in its bid to defend last year's regular-season title when junior guard Jessica Moriarty's (East Haven)  potential game-winning - but difficult -- shot at the buzzer bounced off the rim.

Coupled with Eastern's loss, Western Connecticut State University gained its first regular-season conference title in ten years with a 59-26 home win over winless Massachusetts Boston. Top-seeded Western and second-seeded Eastern both earn a first-round tournament bye and will open conference tournament play with semifinals-round games Friday at Western's Feldman Arena. Third-seeded Southern Maine (18-7, 10-4 little east), which earned a share of second place with Eastern with the victory, hosts No. 6 Massachusetts Dartmouth and No. 4 Keene State College hosts No. 5 Rhode Island College in Tuesday's two first-round games at 7 p.m.

In Friday's semifinals, Eastern faces the Southern Maine-UMass Dartmouth winner at 7:30 p.m. after  Western meets the Keene State-Rhode Island College at 5:30 p.m. The tournament final is scheduled for Sunday at 4 p.m.

While the Warriors missed out on a piece of the regular-season title after capturing last year's regular-season title outright, Eastern surprised many by winning ten of 14 conference games (its eighth season of at least ten regular-season conference wins in the last ten years) and sharing second place in the final rating. The Warriors were without four of last year's starters and had two freshmen in the starting lineup over the second half of the season.

Eastern's final four regular-season conference games this year were determined by a total of nine points, the Warriors splitting two three-point decisions, winning by a pair over Western Connecticut Tuesday at home in overtime and losing Saturday by one. Despite the loss Saturday, Eastern is 4-3 in its last seven games with Southern Maine after losing 15 in a row in the series. Six of those seven games have been decided by a total of 17 points (Eastern winning twice in overtime).

Looking for its first regular-season sweep of Southern Maine in 19 years Saturday, Eastern withstood  three consecutive turnovers late in the game to move into a one-point lead with four minutes left on a pair of free throws by freshman forward Tanisha Carter (East Hartford) before Southern Maine rookie Curran Leighton answered with two freebies of her own to give the Huskies the lead for good, 54-53, ten seconds later. Ranked seventh in the eight-team conference in free throw percentage, Southern Maine then got two more clutch free throws from senior Haley Johnson to make it 56-53, eventually hitting 19 of 24 from the stipe in the game.

With Eastern's chances dwindling in the final minutes, junior guard Brittany Whiteley (Windsor Locks)  gave the Warriors life with a defensive rebound on a missed USM shot that would have all but iced the game with less than two minutes left, then scored what would be the Warriors' final four points with two free throws and a basket on a baseline drive that cut the lead to one, 58-57, 37 seconds left.

The hosts had the ball and its one-point lead in the final seconds, but Eastern re-gained possession on a missed shot that went out of bounds with eight seconds left. After calling a time out with 3.4 seconds left, the Warriors inbounded on the sideline to Moriarty, who took a couple dribbles to her left before firing a 17-footer in traffice that bounced off the room as the horn sounded. Southern Maine ended the regular season with five straight conference wins.

The game featured the top two conference Rookie-of-the-Year candidates in the 5-foot-9 inch Leighton of Southern Maine - the conference scoring leader-- and Carter of Eastern. Leighton, limited to eight points in Eastern's two-point victory over the Huskies Jan. 16, led all players with 21 points and nine rebounds Saturday. She hit half of her game-high 14 field goal attempts and seven of eight free throws.

Whiteley was 7-for-10 from the floor en route to a team-high 18 points for Eastern, with Carter adding 15 points and junior forward Amanda Pierlioni (Plainville) ten. Carter was 6-for-7 from the floor and 3-for-4 from the free throw line. Pierlioni, who connected on a three-pointer with seven minutes left that gave Eastern its first lead since the midway point of the half,  shared team-high rebounding honors with freshman center Lauren Kelleher (Dartmouth, MA), with seven. Whiteley also handed out five assists.

Eastern shot over 50 percent from the floor in the first half and led the entire half with the exception of the first basket of the game and last basket of the half. Pierlioni and Carter combined to score 15 of Eastern's points in one stretch that vaulted the visitors to an eight-point, 17-9 lead just six minutes into play. Both players finished with ten points in the half, but Southern Maine seized the halftime lead and momentum by scoring the final six points of the frame, all by junior guard Kaylie DeMillo. Without a point to that point, DeMillo sank two free throws with 67 seconds left in the half, converted a three-point field goal on her own offensive rebound, then beat the buzzer on a drive to the basket off a rebound from Johnson on a missed Eastern three-pointer.