The St. Thomas Aquinas College men's basketball team has advanced to its first ever NCAA Division II Tournament East Regional Final with a 73-70 victory over Merrimack College in Syracuse, NY. The Spartans have won eight straight and 17-of-18 to stand at 27-5 overall entering Tuesday's 7:00 pm final against #3 seed College of Saint Rose.
Justin Reyes led all scorers with 24 points while James Mitchell added 16. Anthony Barry totaled 19 and Ryan Boulter 17 for Merrimack, which led by as many as 11 in the first half before the Spartans rallied.
Merrimack entered the contest as the #8 seed, advancing after a stunning 72-68 overtime first round upset over top seeded LeMoyne, while the #5 Spartans earned their berth with a 91-72 win over St. Anselm.
Reyes broke the seal on the scoring with a three-point play just 17 seconds in, but the Warriors carried yesterday's momentum into the early minutes, with their stingy zone frustrating STAC in the first half. Merrimack jumped to a 25-14 advantage on a Devon Moore bucket midway through the session, but the Spartans found their rhythm and three pointers from Adam Koziol and James Mitchell sparked a 10-2 run, bringing their team to within three.
After the gap extended back to nine, the Spartans made another run late to close to within 39-37 at halftime. Mitchell brought his team even with an early jumper, but STAC was unable to reclaim the lead until another Mitchell jumper made the score 44-43 at the 15:23 mark.
Shaq McFarlan made a pair of layups in an 8-0 run to make the score 62-53, and that lead grew to 64-54 on another McFarlan hoop with 8:15 left. Merrimack was far from finished, however, as Anthony Barry's three-point play highlighted a 9-0 Warrior answer, making the score 64-63 with 4:36 left.
With STAC holding a 66-63 edge, Troy McLaughlan drained a trey to tie the game with 3:03 left, but Reyes was fouled going to the hoop and converted a pair to put the Spartans up, 68-66 with 2:36 left. McLaughlin came up big again, however, putting his team ahead with another bomb at 2:28, making the score 69-68.
St. Thomas Aquinas remained unfazed and got the ball back to Reyes, who was unstoppable in hitting a finger roll layup with a foul, converting the three-point play with 2:02 left. Boulter made the score 71-70 with 49 seconds left, but Reyes was again there for the answer, scoring 24 ticks later. A pair of missed free throws gave Merrimack one final chance to tie the score but their desperation shot was off the mark.
In addition to his 16 points, Mitchell dished off eight assists, with Chaz Watler adding seven. St. Thomas Aquinas outrebounded the Warriors, 37-32, and forced 17 turnovers while yielding just 13.