Strong finish sends Hawks to CCC semifinals

Andrew Wuebker, Sports Editor

As Tuesday night’s Commonwealth Coast Conference (CCC) quarterfinal matinee between the Hawks and Nor’easters wore on, a tension could be felt in the crowd.

Roger Williams University fans had seen it before; a frightening offensive team marching into the Campus Recreation Center to spoil the Hawks’ playoff aspirations. Like Eastern Nazarene College last season, University of New England played the role of underdog. At times, an upset didn’t seem like a long shot for the Nor’easters, answering RWU’s runs with pressure, a fast pace and a handful of timely shots.

This time around, unlike last time out, the Hawks were the predators, not the prey.

“We had a mindset going into the game, ‘Don’t get hunted, be the hunter,’ or something like that and because we were the higher seed and everything, we had to be the ones to attack,” said Hawks junior captain Austin Coene. “We just want to get this game out of the way and prepare for Thursday now.”

In a roller coaster of a game, No. 4 RWU used a strong finish at the end of the first and second halves to defeat No. 5 UNE 88-81 and advance to the second round.

Just 3:08 into the first half, the Hawks had the Nor’easters on the run, going on a 14-2 spurt capped off by back-to-back baskets by senior captain Nick Marini. The second basket scored his 1,000th and 1,001st career points.

The home crowd erupted in cheers for the smiling Marini and was engulfed by teammates. The game stopped for a moment to honor the All-CCC Second Team point guard and posed for a picture with Hawks Head Coach Michael Tully.

The stoppage of play for Marini’s accomplishment gave UNE the momentum back however. 

UNE went on a 17-4 run to take a 19-18 lead with 9:04 left in the first half. The Nor’easters began to pressure the Hawks, getting into the passing lanes and forcing a flurry of bad offensive decisions, but the Hawks answered with a run of their own fueled by their defense. 

Behind holding UNE to 32 percent shooting in the half, RWU outscored UNE 28-11 in the final nine minutes after the Nor’easters took the lead, en route to a 46-30 halftime advantage.

To open the second half, UNE wouldn’t go away quietly, getting the deficit down to as much as three, 52-49, with 13:18 to go behind some hot shooting from 3-point range.

Despite looking slightly fatigued at times in the second half, the Hawks stayed the course on defense and got big shots to fall from all around, especially by their veterans.

Coene scored 20 of his game-high 35 points in the second half with Marini adding 20 points and six assists.

With 6:51 left, Coene drove the basket and scored with his left hand, plus the foul, but went down to the floor holding his left shoulder after the play. The crowd was clearly stunned and thought the worst. Coene got up to big cheers from the crowd and converted at the line for a 66-58 lead. The play summarized the kind of night it was for RWU fans as the fluctuating emotions continued. 

In the last few minutes of the second half, RWU used another strong stretch to seal the deal. Despite only going 3-for-16 from 3-point range, the Hawks got a big triple from sophomore Rich Pugliese with 3:08 to go for a 76-65 lead. Later, the Hawks got out on the break scoring on back-to-back possessions by Coene and Marini giving the Hawks a 80-70 lead with 1:05 left.

With not much time remaining, UNE was forced to foul and RWU converted enough free throws down to stretch their lead. As the clock read triple zeroes, the home crowd breathed a sigh of relief, attaining their long awaited playoff victory.

“I thought we played the last six minutes of the first half the way we needed to play this team and we got a 16-point lead,” Tully said. “And in the second half I probably think we looked a little fatigued, didn’t quite play with the same intensity defensively, but for a good portion of time we did. When they started making runs, when they made a run, when they cut it we kind of answered and we got some stops and made some big baskets.”

After the game, Coene didn’t give any indication his left shoulder would be a problem for Thursday, saying it’s something he’s been dealing with “the last couple weeks.”

The Hawks move on to the semifinals to play the defending CCC champions, No. 1 Nichols College, in Dudley, Massachusetts on Thursday, Feb. 22. RWU’s last win vs. Nichols came on Feb. 6, 2013 in Bristol — 10 straight losses vs. the Bison.

RWU’s recent results against Nichols may not be on their side, but coach Tully believes his players are prepared and ready for the challenge, however, after playing a close game in their building last month. 

“The last time we played ‘em there, we played a great game,” Tully said. “We were ahead by a point with two and a half minutes left and I think we lost a close game… It was a one-possession game and what I told them after that game is — that game, that night — the way we played and what we know we’re capable of doing will help us at some point and this is the time for it to help.”