The defending New England Women's and Men's Athletic Conference-champion MIT Engineers had just about everything going for them Saturday, except a gracious guest. Playing at home in the raucous Rockwell Cage, the top-seeded Engineers were defeated by the fifth-seeded Clark Cougars 71-59.
The setting at “the Cage” was exactly what the college had envisioned as the team has built a strong program the past two years. Enjoying a 22-3 regular season, MIT's reward was to host the conference semifinals with a chance to earn its second straight NCAA tournament appearance.
Hundreds of family members, fellow students and student athletes from many of the other athletic programs, administration and band were dressed in cardinal red and silver gray to cheer on the Engineers. Early on, the results were to their liking. The crowd was loud and on its feet and the band was up and playing as MIT opened a commanding 17-5 lead, forcing Clark coach Paul Phillips to call a timeout.
If you ask most coaches about playing on the road, they all tend to say the same thing: Withstand the initial tidal wave, knock down shots and hang around as long as you can and make a move late in the game. Clark did just that.
The Cougars got back into the game when MIT guard Mitchell Kates went down with what appeared to be a turned ankle. Unfortunately for MIT, that wasn’t the only thing that turned. Using solid pressure defense and denying the ball inside where MIT enjoyed a significant height advantage, Clark went on a 14-1 run to take a three-point lead. When Kates returned, his effectiveness had diminished. Clark closed the half outscoring MIT 29-14 to take a 34-31 lead.
Talking to some of the students at halftime, there was a sense of nervousness. Many had not seen MIT look this bad at home all season except for the Wheaton game. Fans have been used to easy wins at the Cage.
As the second half began, the energy of the crowd was noticeably different. It had changed from being loud and confident to one of concern and desperation. Clark continued to knock down big shot after big shot. MIT fought and battled to stay close, led by Noel Hollingsworth. The 6-foot-9 post led the Engineers with 30 points. But it was not enough.
The Cougars had one thing MIT could not combat: senior leadership. Mark Alexander’s brilliant floor leadership and Jack Minister’s shot-making sent the Tech faithful away disappointed. As the final seconds ticked away, Alexander jumped up and down screaming, looking as if he had won the national championship. Clark is now one step closer to getting a chance to play for that elusive title.
The second semifinal between 2-seed Springfield College and No. 3 seed WPI was very much like a boxing match. The early action was slow as both teams were getting a good feel for each other. WPI was able to catch some momentum late in the half led by Kyle Nadeau’s hot shooting from 3-point land. WPI led 31-20.
Then, the action took off — and sadly, in a bad way.
Two minutes in and with WPI leading big, Springfield’s Ryan Coburn and WPI’s Fernando Perez got into a tussle and punches were thrown. This led to their ejections and caused a delay of several minutes. The delay was to discuss fouls and ejections but it took the steam out of the Springfield crowd.
The momentum Springfield had hoped to get was fading as WPI kept making 3-pointer after 3-pointer, led by Nadeau, who finished 6-of-9 from behind the arc. Springfield’s Matt Cavalieri kept the Pride in it by himself, but they could not contain Nadeau and Jeff Robinson, who combined for 42 points as WPI advanced with a 73-50 win.
The upset always looms large come conference tournament time, and this holds true in the NEWMAC. The championship on Sunday will feature the No. 3 and No. 5 seeds playing for the right to go to the big dance. MIT, the host, is now sitting off to the side hoping that on Monday someone will come ask them to dance.
Sunday, we will report on the NEWMAC championship and review a wild week in conference tournament play as the upsets continue to pile on. NCAA and ECAC brackets will also be announced early next week, so, as always, stay tuned.