No. 2 Eastern shakes No. 7 Western, 65-54; faces Keene State Friday
WILLIMANTIC, Conn. - The Eastern Connecticut State University men's basketball team never trailed after the opening minute but was never able to completely shake free until the final minute of play before finally posting a 65-54 victory over Western Connecticut State University in the first round of the 2013 Little East Conference Tournament at Francis E. Geissler Gymnasium.
At left: Eastern's Chris Robitaille (40) adds to his team-leading block total by denying Western's Leroy Mayers in the first half of Tuesday's LEC tournament win. (Photo by Courtney Weber).
In moving to within a win of its fourth straight 20-win season, second-seeded Eastern (19-7) moves into the tournament semifinal round for the fourth straight season and will face third-seeded Keene State College Friday night at 8 p.m. in the second of two semifinal-round games at the Murray Center on the Rhode Island College campus.
Eastern equals its longest winning streak of the season (six) while Western (5-21) ends its season on a six-game slide.
Keene also struggled before eliminating sixth-seeded Plymouth State University, 62-56, Tuesday night at Keene, NH. Top-seeded Rhode Island College hosts fourth-seeded University of Southern Maine in Friday's first semifinal at 6 p.m.. Rhode Island slipped past visiting eighth-seeded Massachusetts Dartmouth, 62-56, while Southern Maine routed visiting fifth-seeded Massachusetts Boston, 85-65.
As the No. 1 seed last year, Eastern got past Keene in double overtime in the semifinals at Geissler Gym, then routed defending champion Rhode Island in the final in a re-match of the 2011 title game.
Four starters finished in double figures Tuesday for Eastern, and sophomore Brandon Yarborough (Stamford) came off the bench after an early injury to senior starter Tyler Hundley (Cheshire) to contribute a career-high 11 rebounds and add seven rebounds in 33 minutes.
Senior forward Chris Robitaille (Canton) and freshman guard Trachone Preston (Enfield) shared game-high scoring honors with 14 points each, with Robitaille grabbing a game-high ten rebounds - his third straight double-double and fifth in the last seven games.
Junior guard Brian Salzillo (North Haven) added 11 points and six rebounds.
Salzillo connected on an early three-pointer to extend his streak to 31 games over two seasons, then tied the program season record with his 79th long-range basket in the second half.
Western never led after the first minute but bounced back from a nine-point deficit midway though the first half on a three-point field goal from senior guard Michael Jensen and a bucket and later a free throw from junior guard Joseph Setaro and trailed by only four at the break.
The Warriors scored eight points in a row - three on Salzillo's second three-pointer of the game and five free throws over a two-minute span by Yarborough -- to move out to their largest lead, 16, with eight minutes left. Western pulled within seven on three occasions thereafter, but each time, Eastern answered. Preston sank two free throws the first time and an inside bucket the second time. With the lead again cut to seven with just under two minutes left, Robitaille dropped in an inside basket on a pass from junior guard Justin Nunez (Hartford), then converted two free throws after rebounding a missed Western three-pointer to makde it 62-51 with 1:28 left.
Freshman guard Phil Starks led Western with 12 points, junior forward Mark Laporte adding 11 and Jensen six points and five rebounds.
Robitaille, Salzillo and Nunez all recorded four assists for the Warriors, with Preston adding three steals.
After losing senior starting guard Joe Ives (Avon) for the season due to a knee injury seven games ago, the Warriors lost Hundley less than two minutes into the game when he split his lip. Hundley received stitches and did not return to the game. His status for the remainder of the season remains uncertain.
Eastern swept Keene State during the regular season, most recently last Wednesday, 93-84, in overtime.