By PETE DIVITO
DUDLEY, Mass.—The Nichols College men’s basketball team has advanced to the NCAA Division III “Sweet 16” and is en route to Amherst, Mass. Thursday afternoon after a send-off celebration from their fellow Nichols community members. The team will face No. 7 Amherst College Friday, March 8, at 7:30 p.m. at LeFrak Gymnasium.
The No. 14-ranked Bison advanced to the round of 16 for the first time in program history with wins over Middlebury (74-71) and Rowan (87-76) last weekend in Glassboro, N.J. Nichols rallied from an 11-point halftime deficit to defeat the Panthers behind 24 points from senior and Jostens Trophy finalist Marcos Echevarria, 22 points from junior DeAnte Bruton, and a 10-point, 10-rebound, four-block effort from junior Jerome Cunningham.
The following night, they took out the host Profs by outrebounding them (50-43) and making 80 percent of their free throws (20-of-25). Sophomore Matt Morrow filled the stat sheet with 18 points and a game-high 17 rebounds while Echevarria chipped in with 21 points. Sophomore Nate Tenaglia tied his career high with 19 points – including three clutch 3-pointers in the second half – as Nichols scored 17 fast break points and outscored Rowan in the paint, 44-30.
“This is a fun experience,” said Nichols first-year head coach Scott Faucher following Saturday night’s win. “We’re fired up. Guys played hard all weekend. It’s nice to take care of business on back-to-back nights and advance to next weekend. For us, it’s all about surviving. We played well as a team both days. The guys are excited. We have another big week ahead of us. We can’t wait to play (this) weekend.”
The wins gave the Bison a program-record 27 on the season (4-0 against New England Small College Athletic Conference schools), and they are tied for No. 2 in the NCAA in winning percentage (93.1). In the process, they became the first program at Nichols College to win two NCAA Tournament games in the same season. The Bison are now 3-2 all-time in the tournament, dating back to a win over No. 11 Neumann on March 3, 2017.
Echevarria leads the Bison in scoring (20.6 ppg) and is No. 2 in the NCAA in three-pointers made (116). Last weekend, the Lynn, Massachusetts native moved into 18th place on the Division III all-time scoring list with 2,485 points and pulled into a tie for No. 3 in career three-pointers with 470. Bruton, meanwhile, averages 19.3 ppg, and leads the team and is No. 36 in the NCAA in free throw pct. (87.3 pct).
Morrow is No. 10 in the NCAA in double-doubles (17) and is averaging 17.5 ppg in the NCAA Tournament – up from his season average of 13.4 ppg. The Leicester, Mass. native is pulling down 10.6 rpg and is No. 11 in the NCAA in both total rebounds (306) and field goal pct. (64.1). Cunningham broke the school-record for blocks in one season against Middlebury and enters Friday’s contest with 59 on the season – good for No. 26 in the nation.
The Mammoths (25-4) defeated Rosemont (84-53) and host Rochester (75-67) to advance to the Sweet 16. Sophomore Grant Robinson leads the Mammoths in scoring at 17.8 ppg while classmate Fru She nets 12.3 ppg. Junior Eric Sewell pulls down a team-leading 8.2 rebounds/game while Robinson hands out 3.5 assists/game.
“Amherst is really long, big, and athletic, and is one of the best defensive teams in the country,” Coach Faucher told the Worcester Telegram & Gazette earlier this week. “We’ll have to play at our pace, play fast, and we want to play in transition and be really unselfish again on the offensive end to get good opportunities. If our defense is there, I think we’ll be able to defend them as well. We may have to grind it out a little bit more in the half-court than we’ve done recently in terms of the style of play. We’ll have to be at our best to take care of business on Friday.”
Friday’s contest marks the 10th all-time meeting between Nichols and Amherst, and the first since 2013. The Mammoths lead the series, 7-2, and have won the last six meetings. In terms of common opponents this season, both schools defeated Lasell, Anna Maria, Eastern Connecticut State, Tufts, Trinity (CT), and Middlebury. The Bison also defeated Wesleyan (CT) in November, while Amherst posted a 2-1 mark against the Cardinals, suffering a 62-60 loss in Middletown, Conn. on Jan. 12.
No. 5 Randolph-Macon (25-3) and No. 6 Swarthmore (24-3) will meet at 5 p.m. Friday, and the winners will play for a trip to the “Final Four” Saturday, March 9, at 6 p.m.
Pete DiVito is sports information director at Nichols College.