Panthers second half comeback falls short; Nwokeji scores 1,000th point in loss
KEENE, N.H. – Third-seed Keene State College knocked off the sixth-seed Plymouth State University men's basketball team, 84-78, in a Little East Conference (LEC) Tournament quarterfinal match-up at Spaulding Gymnasium.
Plymouth State ends the season at 15-11 (6-9 LEC), notching its most wins since the 2009-10 season and more than doubling last season's win total (7). Keene State (16-10, 9-6 LEC) will advance to the LEC Final Four, hosted by Eastern Connecticut State University this weekend. The Owls will face No. 7 Rhode Island College, an upset winner over No. 2 University of Southern Maine, 64-63.
Senior Uche Nwokeji (Lynn, Mass.) became the 27th player in team history to surpass 1,000 career points after making an inside jumper with 12:20 left in the second half. The stellar big-man ends his career in 26th place on Plymouth State's career scoring leaders list.
The Panthers held a slight advantage in the opening minutes, thanks to a three-pointer from junior Ernie Johnson (Springfield, Mass.) and a pair of free throws from classmate Jack Preston (Nashua, N.H.) for a 5-2 advantage. Senior Nate Stitchell (Coventry, R.I.) put the Owls up 7-5 after sinking the first of his four three-pointers on the night, and Keene State would maintain the advantage throughout the remainder of the half.
A driving layup from junior Curtis Arsenault (Berlin, N.H.) cut the Plymouth State deficit to 14-12 with 12:56 left in the opening half, but the Owls responded with eight straight points to go up 22-12. Junior Jaquel Edwards (Manchester, Conn.) would connect from long range twice in the spurt. Keene pushed the lead to 11 points, 32-21, after a tip-in and free throw from senior Tre' Tipton (Stamford, Conn.) with just over three minutes remaining in the half.
Sophomore Brian Boulay (Keene, N.H.) connected from beyond the arc, though, then sank a pair of free throws to make it a 33-26 game with 2:28 to go in the opening period. Johnson netted a pair of free throws to make it 36-28, but Tipton had another old-fashioned three-point play just before the end of the half to give Keene State a 39-28 halftime advantage.
Preston sparked the Panther offense in the second half. Plymouth State opened the half with an 11-0 run to tie the game at 39-39. Johnson drained a deep ball to start the spurt, and Preston had a dunk and converted on a tough scoop shot around multiple defenders during the stretch. But Stitchell connected again from long range, sparking an 8-2 Owls run, and giving the hosts a 47-41 advantage with just under 15:00 minutes to play.
Over the next seven minutes Preston was simply unstoppable, scoring 14 points during the stretch. He scored after a nifty up-and-under move, made a series of interior buckets, and even drained a pair of three-pointers. His second triple cut the Keene State lead to 63-57 at the midpoint of the second half, though Edwards responded with a long ball of his own.
Keene State appeared to take control of the game after an 8-2 run pushed the lead to 76-62 with 4:24 left to play, but the Panthers responded again. Nwokeji and Preston scored from inside and, after a KSC free throw, Boulay sank a three from well beyond the arc to make it 77-69 with two minutes remaining.
Stitchell sank a pair of free throws to push the lead to 10, but Boulay swished another three from the left wing, then connected on a leaning runner from the right elbow to make it 79-74 with 1:24 to go. Johnson banged home a straight on three-pointer with just 43 seconds left, cutting the deficit to 79-77, but Keene State would hit their free throws down the stretch and the Panthers were unable to get any closer.
Preston led the Panthers with 22 points (including 20 in the second half), and added eight rebounds, two assists, two steals and two blocks. Arsenault and Johnson each added 16 points, with Arsenault grabbing five boards and Johnson hitting four three-pointers. Boulay finished with 14 points, while Nwokeji added seven points and a game-high 10 rebounds. The senior capped his career with a stellar final season, setting personal bests in points, scoring average, field goal percentage, rebounds, assists and blocked shots.
Stitchell paced the Owls with 23 points while only missing once from the floor (8-of-9). He added five steals. Edwards finished with 16 points, including three triples, and pulled down five rebounds. Senior Matt Ozzella (Medway, Mass.) added 11 points, eight boards and four assists, while freshman Ty Nichols (Springfield, Mass.) added 11 points.
Plymouth State had a program-best eight game win streak to open the season. The Panthers will graduate Nwokeji, Dante Ramos (Dartmouth, Mass.) and fan-favorite Zach Stevens (Londonderry, N.H.), but should return a number of key contributors.
Arsenault finishes the season as the team's leading scorer, scoring 407 points (15.7/game). Nwokeji finished with 406 points (15.6/game) and Preston added 329 (13.7/game). The trio were also the top rebounders for PSU this season, with Nwokeji pulling down 228 (8.8/game), Preston grabbing 134 (5.6/game), and Arsenault controlling 122 missed shots (4.7/game).
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