BROOKLINE, Mass. - It's been anything but easy going for the No. 4 Mitchell Mariners and No. 6 Newbury Nighthawks in the 2019 New England Collegiate Conference Postseason but one of the Cinderella stories will be fulfilled Saturday afternoon at the Yarnell Center in the NECC Championship Game.
The Mariners and Nighthawks are the first four-seed and six-seed, respectively, to ever reach an NECC Championship Game in Men's Basketball in the 11-year history of the conference.
The road for the No. 6 Nighthawks to this point has been covered with late comebacks and last-second heroics while the No. 4 Mariners path was far from smooth, reaching the Championship Game on an overtime buzzer-beater to upset the top-seed New England College.
In Newbury's quarterfinal win over No. 3 Dean, Nighthawks senior Omar Williams (Queens, N.Y.) sealed the game on an offensive rebound and put back layup as the Nighthawks upset the Bulldogs 96-90. On Thursday night at No. 2 Eastern Nazarene, the Nighthawks trailed by seven with 2:08 remaining, but finished the game on an 8-0 run to stun the Lions 74-73. Omar Williams scored the final four points in the win at ENC and was credited with the game-sealing block, as time expired.
For the Mariners, their quarterfinal path went through the defending champions, the No. 5 Southern Vermont Mountaineers. After a low scoring first half, the Mariners opened the second on a 13-1 run to take control and eliminate the Mountaineers with a 64-53 win. On Thursday night at No. 1 New England College, junior Matt Finke (Wolcott, Conn.) hit a 40-foot, overtime game-winner, as time expired to beat the Pilgrims 87-85. Finke finished the game with a career-high 22 points.
The court will be filled with some of the conference's finest student-athletes on Saturday afternoon. The Nighthawks senior trio of Omar Williams, Pierce Weatherspoon (Hartford, Conn.), and Tank Roberson (Pittsfield, Mass.) have led the push to the Championship for Newbury. The Nighthawks are 6-2 in February, averaging 86.5 points per game in those eight games.
Weatherspoon leads the trio, averaging 21.8 PPG in February, followed by Williams and his 19.9 PPG, then Roberson's 16.0 points.
The Nighthawks success reaches far beyond this trio. Sophomore Tim Deng (Portland, Maine), who was in the running of NECC Defensive Player of the Year, has at least one block in 25 of the Nighthawks 26 games this season while providing 11.8 PPG in February. Freshman Shamar Simms (Worcester, Mass.) has been a rebounding machine in the postseason, coming down with 12 boards in each of the two Nighthawks postseason games and averaging 30 minutes.
For the Mariners, senior Domineco Santiago (Port St. Lucie, Fla.) broke through for a well-deserved NECC Player of the Year Award. The senior center and conference's best player in 2018-19 is one of two players in the NECC to average a double-double. Santiago averaged the eighth-most points in the conference (17.1) while leading the league in rebounding average (12.7), all while shooting 57.1 percent from the field. In his four seasons, Santiago's field goal percentage stands at 61.2 percent.
Fellow classmate, guard Steffen Brunson (West Haven, Conn.) has produced his best career season, averaging 16.7 points, 4.7 assists, and 4.2 rebounds for the Mariners in 27 games. Junior Hasani Williams (Miramar, Fla.) is another key cog in the Mariners machine. The forward is averaging 13.3 PPG this season while shooting 52.9 percent from the floor. The consistency of Hasani Williams shows with his career shooting percentage of 53.0 percent in three seasons.
Perhaps the most intriguing of all the storylines going into Saturday's title clash is Mitchell's 14 game winning streak over the Nighthawks, dating back to 2012. Santiago has been around for half of that winning streak and steps up his game, averaging 22.3 points in his seven career appearances against the Nighthawks.
The storyline may hold little credence with Newbury already ending two long losing streaks against opponents this season. The Nighthawks had not beaten Southern Vermont in eight straight games before ending that run with a 95-89 win in early January. The same goes for Becker, who held a 10 game winning streak against Newbury before that was snapped in mid-January with an 83-74 win.
This season, Mitchell scored a 74-73 win over the Nighthawks, a game in which Santiago did not play for the Mariners. Mitchell completed the regular season sweep over Newbury with an 88-79 win in late January. Brunson led all scorers with 26 points in each game.
It's all or nothing for the Mariners and Nighthawks on Saturday afternoon at 2:00 p.m. at Yarnell Athletic Center at Mitchell. Winner advances with the conference's automatic bid to the NCAA Division III Tournament.
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