The St. Thomas Aquinas College men's basketball team earned its second consecutive East Coast Conference Tournament Championship with a thrilling 97-86 overtime victory over Molloy in Bridgeport, CT. The Spartans, now 25-5 overall, earn the conference's automatic bid to the NCAA Division II Men's Basketball Tournament and will await location and opponent, to be released Sunday night. Molloy, which carried the #2 seed into the tourney, dropped to 18-11 with the tough loss.
STAC led throughout much of the contest but the Lions forced the game into overtime on the strength of Charlie Marquardt's incredible 51-point performance. ECC Player of the Year Justin Reyes responded with 26 points and a game-high 14 rebounds to give the Spartans their sixth straight victory and 15th in 16 games overall.
Marquardt provided coming attractions by opening the game with a three-pointer just 22 seconds after the jump. STAC rebounded with the next eight points, however, with four coming courtesy of Reyes. Despite both teams having played the night before, a tremendously quick pace to start resulted in a 23-18 Spartans lead less than nine minutes into play.
From there, the pace settled as Dan Wilson's dunk was the final blow in a 6-0 STAC run over the next four minutes. Foul trouble conspired to hamper the top seed in the half's final minutes, and Marquardt poured in 11 consecutive points to give Molloy a 32-31 edge with three minutes before the break.
A pair of Marquardt free throws gave his team a 38-36 advantage with 20 seconds left, but James Mitchell's bomb from well beyond the arc beat the buzzer and sent the defending champs into the locker room with a 39-38 lead.
Chaz Watler scored seven straight points as part of a 12-2 STAC uprising to start the second point, with the 51-40 gap matching the game's largest to that point. The combatants traded blows with the Spartans leading by as many as 13 points with seven minutes left, but Marquardt hit three treys and all of his team's points in an 11-2 run to quickly draw within 72-68 with five minutes still on the clock.
St. Thomas Aquinas held a 79-75 edge on a pair of Mitchell foul shots with 2:15 left, but Jaylen Morris answered from deep with 1:49 left, and Mike Torre hit two from the line to give Molloy an 82-81 lead with 1:16 to play in regulation.
Reyes missed from in close but was fouled on the carom, converting one of two to deadlock the game with 48 seconds left, and a Mitchell steal with 20 gave the Spartans a chance to win, only to see Curtis Jenkins generate a huge block at time expired.
Once again in the middle of the action, Marquardt was fouled just 16 seconds into the OT and hit a pair to complete his 15-of-15 afternoon from the stripe. STAC remained unfazed as Shaq McFarlan converted a three-point play, Reyes hit a jumper, and McFarlan added another and-one, as St. Thomas Aquinas stormed back for 12 consecutive points to close out the win.
In addition to Reyes' championship-caliber effort, which included some key blocks despite playing with four fouls, four other Spartans hit double-figures in scoring, including McFarlan (18), Aaron Cust (16), Mitchell (13), and Watler (12). For his effort and despite the loss, Marquardt was named as the tournament's Most Outstanding Player, after compiling an amazing 83 points in the Lions' pair of weekend tilts.
STAC held a decisive 47-35 rebounding advantage, but Molloy stayed afloat with a strong 21-of-25 (84%) from the free throw line, as the Spartans took their third meeting of the season over the Lions.