SMITHFIELD, R.I. – Trailing by 11, with their hopes of locking in at least one home game in the Northeast Conference Tournament on the line, Bryant had to dig deep. They were up against a team that had nothing to lose and was playing like it all night long. Central Connecticut had started the second half 6-8 from the field, including two of their three attempts from deep. It was almost as if the Bulldogs were putting so much pressure on themselves, as if they knew that this was their best chance to clinch a top-four seed.
“The way they were making shots, I’ll be honest with you, I could see myself telling Howie (Dickenman, Central Connecticut’s head coach), ‘Great game’ at the end,” said Bryant head coach Tim O’Shea. “They were making some incredible shots.”
Then Bryant did it. They dug deep. Their leader did what he does, and the rest of the team followed. They got what they wanted – a 77-69 win to lock up no worse than a No. 4 seed.
Dyami Starks sensed the team needed a spark, and though he had missed his first six shots from deep, he never stops competing. He went on a personal 8-0 run, capped by consecutive three-pointers, to get them within three. Central Connecticut had more answers for a while, but you could see the Bulldogs coming.
“We go as he goes,” said sophomore forward Dan Garvin, who had his sixth double-double of the season with 17 points (8-10 shooting) and 14 rebounds to go with four blocked shots. “He’s up, we’re up; he’s down, we’re down.”
And as if it was all supposed to work out this way, after the senior leader got it all going, it was a freshman who completed the comeback. Hunter Ware, who they have been high on all along but had struggled recently, hit a big three-pointer to Bryant up for good at 64-63. It was all Bryant from there, with Ware finishing with 16 points, including 4-6 shooting from long range.
Ware’s three-pointer started a run of ten unanswered points. The run continued with two baskets by Garvin, who had a so-so non-conference this year but has been better in Northeast Conference play, and ended with a three-point play by unsung hero Joe O’Shea, who quietly had 15 points and seven rebounds to continue what has been a solid couple of months.
Both the coach and Starks talked about the team staying together while they fell behind. O’Shea saw the togetherness in the timeouts, and Starks also highlighted how much they trusted each other. They did it at just the right time considering what lies ahead.
“It was like a tournament situation, having to win to advance and get a home game,” said O’Shea. “It really had the feel, coaching, like a tournament game. Down double digits on your home court, to a team that’s been struggling, it’s a lot of pressure on everybody, and the guys did not fold. That’s what I was happy about.”
Bryant was going to have a tougher time getting that much-needed win on Saturday, when regular season champion St. Francis Brooklyn comes to town in the finale. Winners of nine straight, the Terriers have established themselves as the class of the conference, leading by four games with one to play. Saturday is also Senior Day, and that can be a tough time because of emotions and having to take care of things leading up to the pre-game ceremony. While the Bulldogs would like to do all they can to land the No. 2 seed, the pressure is off as far as securing a home game.
The Bulldogs had a tough time in non-conference play. They looked like a team that needed to figure out what they were going to be aside from Starks and the potential Garvin has. Even then, Garvin appeared to still be figuring out what kind of player he’s going to be. Once conference play got going, they played better, with the likes of Bosko Kostur emerging and Garvin playing more to his potential. Shane McLaughlin, who had 12 assists with just one turnover on Thursday night, has developed into a solid point guard.
Bryant can still get the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament, which would then guarantee them a home semifinal game should they win their quarterfinal. They also want to continue playing well going into it, knowing how competitive and unpredictable the conference has become outside of St. Francis Brooklyn.
“It’s definitely better to be playing at home, but I’m not going to go as far as to say it’s a relief,” said Garvin. “We’ve still got to go to the playoffs, take each game one at a time, so if we can lock up the second seed, that would be good.”