By Mary Paoletti
New England teams have not had good luck in the 2010 postseason.
The N.I.T., a tournament lacking the glamour of the Big Dance but an extension of the season nonetheless, saw four schools from the northeast gain entry; UConn, Quinnipiac, Northeastern, and Rhode Island.
Northeastern was the first to get tossed. Barely. Last Tuesday No. 5 NU played within two points of the two-time national champion Connecticut Huskies. The fourth-seeded Big East brawler sat in a six-point hole until senior Jerome Dyson took over the offense, scoring 11 of UConns final 13 points to help the team escape with a 59-57 win.
"I didn't want it to go down and end like that," the guard said. "I just tried to be more aggressive."
Dysons desperation to end a down season on an upswing was not enough to save Connecticut Monday night. The Huskies missed an opportunity to put away No. 1 seed Virginia Tech in the closing seconds of the second-round game and lost, 65-63. It was an almost appropriate end to months of struggle; 11 ticks left on the clock and not only did Kemba Walkers shot rim out, but senior Gavin Edwards missed an open layup after collecting the rebound, ending the game and the season.
The Huskies join Quinnipiac on the heap of lost postseason hopes.
The Bobcats were Virginia Techs first victim in a Mar. 17 match up. Though No. 8 seed QU wasnt expected to beat the No. 1 Hokies -- an ACC squad widely regarded as an NCAA Tournament snub -- the 20-point steamrolling was still painful. Quinnipiac had earned top regular-season honors by beating every team in the NEC at least once en route to its 15-3 conference record. Among those wins was an 87-79 road stunner against eventual league champion Robert Morris.
Sophomore guard James Johnson had 28 points on that February day, but it was an effort he couldnt replicate against an ACC team in the first round of the N.I.T. Johnson notched just eight points against the Hokies stingy defense, symbolizing Quinnipiacs overall struggle. The Bobcats shot just 38.1 percent from the floor (24-for-63) and were outrebounded 42-30. Think that the boards are a secondary statistic in an 81-61 blowout? QU came into the N.I.T. ranked No. 1 nationally in rebounding margin (9.2) and seventh in rebounds per game (40.7). Getting out-muscled on the glass, in territory that the Bobcats reigned over so absolutely all year, was an out-of-conference reality check.
That kind of shock isnt something that URI worries about.
"We know what the NIT is," Rams center Will Martel said. "We've only been to the second round, but we're experienced. I think we've got a good shot at winning the championship."
Martel might be right.
Before losing 6 of its last 10 games, Rhode Island was 19-3 and hot for an NCAA Tournament bid. The Runnin Rams were eating up teams like Northeastern, Dayton, and Oklahoma State by playing smart but gusty basketball. And a deep bench helped keep composure consistent. These qualities, despite a drawn-out stumble at the end of the year, are resurfacing for URI now in the N.I.T.
Round one challenged No. 2 seed Rhody with the likes of John Shurna, seventh-seeded Northwesterns leading scorer (18.3 ppg). Coach Jim Baron dug into his bench, as he had all year, and came up with a five-man defensive rotation. The tag team man-to-man effort kept Shurna below his average and ensured the Rams a 76-64 win.
The story was similar in URIs second round contest. On Monday night, NBA prospect Luke Babbitt (22.1 ppg) led sixth-seeded Nevada into battle. Defense once again won the day as Rhode Island limited the WACs Player of the Year to just 14 points. Delroy James, a junior forward for the Rams, was not only instrumental in shutting down Babbitt but also went off on the other end of the floor for a career-high 34 points.
So URIs season continues to inch closer to April. But in this round the Rams stand alone as the last New England representative. Can Rhody, the Atlantic 10s fith-place finisher, handle the Hokies? The quarterfinal contest will mark the Rams as the third team from the Northeast to try.
Maybe three will be a lucky number.
This is our third straight N.I.T.," Will Martel said. We laid an egg my freshman year. There's no way that's ever going to happen again."
Mary Paoletti is on Twitter at http:twitter.comMary_Paoletti