Hawks break down in second half, fall to top-seeded Bison in CCC semifinals

Andrew Wuebker, Sports Editor

DUDLEY, Mass. — As Nichols College sophomore guard DeAnte Bruton hit shot after shot in the second half and the Bison’s Den went berserk, one could feel the game for Roger Williams University was simply slipping away.

As the clock reached 1:30 to play in the second half and the Hawks trailed double digits, the Hawks’ starters slowly walked off the floor blank-faced with disbelief.

They knew it. Too soon, their terrific season was now over.

“It’s a good team that we played,” said Hawks senior captain Jaylen Jennings. “We played up to their level. Honestly, as much as it hurts there’s no regrets out there, you know? I feel like we all gave it everything we had to the last minute so that’s all that matters in the end.”

It was a great first half for RWU — tremendous even — as the Hawks had the Bison crowd shocked early. The Hawks came out of the gate red hot and aggressive on offense shooting 50 percent from the floor in the period. Behind Jennings, who had 15 of his 17 points in the first half, the Hawks built a 47-39 halftime lead.

The Hawks defense also got off to a great start in the opening frame, holding the Bison to 42 percent shooting in the frame and kept their three-headed monster of guards — junior Marcos Echevarria, senior Daequon Antoine and Bruton — in check.

RWU held the three to a combined 9-of-26 shooting in the first half for 27 points. Second chance points and points off turnovers kept Nichols in the game however and fortunate to only be trailing by single digits.

To start the second half, RWU looked poised to pour it on as Hawks junior guard Austin Coene added a layup and Hawks senior forward Conor O’Brien added a triple for a 52-41 lead with 18:02 left in the half, their largest of the night.

From that point on, it was an entirely different game. The Bruton show was about to begin. All the Hawks could do was helplessly watch.

A 3-pointer by Bruton got the lead down to single digits again and the Bison’s Den was suddenly alive.

It was at that point the Hawks began to suffer some breakdowns on defense in the second half and their offense began to stumble.

With the game tied at 59 with 11:07 to go, Bruton hit back-to-back jumpers to give the Bison a 63-59 lead, their largest of the game since early in the first half.

Despite the change in momentum, the Hawks kept the deficit to a two-possession game or less until the 6:14 mark. With the Hawks trailing 69-65, Coene gambled on a pass for Bruton and made him pay with a big-time triple, giving the Bison a three-possession lead at 72-65.

As the clock continued to wind down, the Hawks looked fatigued and out of hope as Bruton, Antoine and Echevarria made play after play.

Echevarria delivered the dagger with 2:18 left as he hit from deep for an 85-72 Nichols lead.

Nichols’ trio of star guards went 17-of-26 from the field in the second half, as Bruton accounted for 10-of-13 makes from the floor for 25 points in the period; a staggering 77 percent. Bruton finished with a game-high 34 points and 10 rebounds, while Echevarria added 18 points, five rebounds and five assists. Antoine rounded out the double digit scorers for Nichols with 15 points and 10 rebounds.

Hawks Head Coach Michael Tully pulled RWU’s starters with 1:30 left and the Nichols crowd could be heard chanting, “Board the busses.”

Tully said the fast pace of the contest eventually wore them down, leading to breakdowns defensively in the second half. He also credited the Bison’s athleticism and shot-making ability as the difference maker in the game.

“I think it was a combination,” Tully said. “They guarded us a little bit better and they made some tough shots. We broke down a little bit defensively and they took advantage of that and made some tough 3’s. They got hot — some of ‘em were pretty deep. And I think ultimately we somewhat ran out of gas. I think their athleticism might’ve wore us down a little bit.”

O’Brien led the Hawks with 18 points, while Coene, Jennings and senior guard Nick Marini each had 17 points.

The loss was the 11th in a row to Nichols for RWU. Top-seeded Nichols will host No. 3 Endicott College in the CCC championship game on Saturday.

“We just talked about the seniors and everything they’ve done,” said Tully on the state of the locker room after the crushing loss. “We had a very good season and should be proud of the way they competed and I told them I’d rather coach them and go down swinging than coach any other team. So, we’ll see how they feel.”

While the Hawks came up just short of their ultimate goal, Jennings spoke highly of the guys beside him in the locker room and wouldn’t change how their season ended.

“They’re my family, you know? These are my brothers and it was a great season with them and wouldn’t trade it for anything else or with anyone else. It was a great ride.”