The St. Thomas Aquinas College men's basketball team rode a 12-2 second-half run to a 60-57 victory over Daemen College in the East Coast Conference Tournament semi-finals in Rochester, NY. The Spartans, entering play as the #2 seed, improved to 25-6 with the win and will appear in the Championship Game for the fifth consecutive season, in search of their third straight championship. The task will be a difficult one, as #1 seed University of Bridgeport awaits in tomorrow's 2:30 pm start, after the Purple Knights won their 16th straight game in a 79-69 triumph over #5 Molloy.
Three-time ECC Player of the Year Justin Reyes led all scorers with 17 points, while James Mitchell and Jamar Sudan added 12 apiece to offset Jeff Redband's 14 for the Wildcats (22-8).
Both teams finished the regular-season with 15-3 ECC records and only a coin flip separated the #2 Spartans from #3 Daemen, with the Wildcats earning a trip to the semis with Wednesday's 75-69 home victory over Roberts Wesleyan. As expected, the teams were evenly-matched, with neither establishing a lead of more than six points through a first half punctuated by tenacious defense.
Six lead changes highlighted the first 10 minutes of play, with a pair of Reyes jumpers putting STAC on top, Aleks Miljenovic answering with a three to put Daemen in the lead, and Reyes scoring again to tie the contest at 10-10 after nine tough minutes. After an exchange of hoops, James Mitchell drilled a trey as part of an 8-2 Spartans burst, with the 20-14 advantage representing the largest before the half closed with a 27-25 STAC lead.
Andrew Sischo put the Wildcats on top with one-of-two from the line, making the tally 30-29, but the Spartans' stingy defense continued to hold as the offense found its stride. Kam Murrell, returning from injury to make his first appearance since February 4, scored from in tight to put STAC back on top, and Sudan and Shaq McFarlan hit consecutive buckets to open the lead to 35-30. After a Jay Sarkis answer, Reyes took charge, scoring the next six straight to give his team a 41-32 gap with 11:41 to go.
That lead expanded to 47-36 on a pair of Mitchell free throws with 8:29 left, but a Redband jumper kept Daemen within reach at 52-47 with 3:44 left. Trying to keep their hopes alive with desperation fouls late, the Wildcats closed the margin to 58-54 on a Sischo layup with 20 seconds to play. A pair of missed free throws opened the door briefly, but Reyes quickly closed it again with a decisive block on the defensive end to seal the victory for STAC.
Sudan had nine rebounds as St. Thomas Aquinas won the board battle by a 41-37 total, despite a game-high 17 from ECC Rookie of the Year Sischo. Mitchell and Reyes added eight caroms each for the Spartans, who turned the ball over 14 times on the evening compared to Daemen's 18.
The winner of Sunday's ECC Men's Tournament Final receives an automatic bid to the NCAA Division II Tournament, though both Bridgeport and STAC - ranked #2 and #3 in the East respectively - are expected to receive bids regardless of Sunday's outcome. The official NCAA field will be announced on Sunday night.