The last time Keene State College donned its home whites, a raucous celebration had satiated the overflow crowd at Spaulding Gymnasium; the culmination of an exhilarating, exhausting journey to the Little East Conference men’s basketball title. Senior Ty Nichols had lifted the Owls to an improbable 72-69 comeback win over Eastern Connecticut State, and the party lingered well into the night.
That was almost nine months ago, and even though the echoes can still be heard, a new season requires new nets to adorn the rims, the old ones snipped and saved for posterity.
Tuesday night another large crowd got its first look at the 2019-20 edition of the Owls, a unit that returns many familiar faces, yet must still find its own identity. Nichols and his school-record 2,316 points are in Kosovo, playing professionally, and KSC may endure some growing pains as this season unfolds.
One thing’s for sure: There will be no coddling.
The Owls (1-2) have one of the most challenging non-conference schedules in the country, and that continued Tuesday against NESCAC power Middlebury College (3-0), ranked 13th nationally in Division III. The Owls lost 92-82 in their home opener, yet there was plenty to be encouraged about and plenty more to work on.
“There’s definitely a lot to learn,” fifth-year KSC Coach Ryan Cain said. “We have most everyone back, but, in a sense, we’re new. The big difference is Ty, of course, and he was such an influence in so much of what we did — he made so many winning plays.”
Even so, it took until January before the Owls really found themselves last year, as at one point they were 8-7 overall and only 4-3 in the Little East. That’s when they went on a 12-game tear that climaxed with the win over Eastern Connecticut in the LEC championship game.
“We found it in the second half last year and what we’re going through now is maybe not much different than what we went through last year,” Cain said.
Thus, ideally, the rugged early-season schedule should help the Owls find and correct their weaknesses. On Tuesday Cain was satisfied with the team’s offense, but Middlebury’s quickness proved too much to handle on the defensive end. The Panthers consistently beat the Owls on drives to the basket, giving them the option of short jumpers and layups, or whipping passes to the perimeter for open 3-pointers.
Middlebury’s Jack Farrell (24 points) and Matt Folger (19 points) are two of the best players KSC will see all season. In fact, Cain said the Owls have already faced arguably five of the top 10 players in the region. They opened against NEWMAC stalwart Springfield College last Tuesday — a 106-101 loss in overtime after they blew a 20-point lead with nine minutes left — and carved out a tough 99-91 road win over Salem State Saturday.
“It’s not something we need to panic about right now,” Cain said. “Because of the level of competition, you learn a lot about what you have to do better.”
Although the Owls have many returning veterans, they are still young with only one senior — Pinkerton Academy graduate Ben Olson, who is first in off the bench. Other returnees who played significant roles last year include juniors DeVon Beasley, Miguel Prieto and James Anozie, and sophomores Nyzair Rountree and Edwin Ezedonmwen. Also, incoming junior Marcus McCarthy, a transfer from Bristol Community College, is in the regular rotation.
And fans Tuesday night couldn’t help but notice two freshmen sure to make an immediate impact — forward Jeff Hunter who started and scored 11 points, and Nick Redden, who came off the bench to score 6. Both were high school standouts in Central Massachusetts, Hunter at Assabet Valley in Hudson and Redden at Algonquin in Northborough.
All told, the Owls went 11 deep Tuesday night and the scoring was balanced with five players in double figures. Rountree led the way off the bench with 14 points, followed by McCarthy (13), Beasley (12), Anozie (11) and Hunter. In contrast, last year Nichols was often far and away the leading scorer, such as in the LEC championship game when he scored 37.
The Owls were in it right to the end Tuesday. They trailed 64-63 after a layup by Rountree and a 3-pointer from Beasley, and were only down 78-73 with 4:51 left. That’s when the explosive Panthers took a little more than a minute to go on a 9-0 run that expanded their lead to 87-73 with 3:28 left, and that was that.
The game opened as a free-flowing, see-saw affair, became more physical midway through, and ended with Middlebury opening up a 49-42 lead at the break.
The game was the first of four in a row at home for KSC, and it doesn’t get any easier. On Saturday at 2 p.m. it hosts another NESCAC opponent in Hamilton College, which is off to a 2-0 start and went 25-5 last year. That will be followed by a Nov. 23 tilt against Albertus Magnus, 20-8 last year, and MIT on Nov. 30, which went a stout 23-5 last year playing in the rugged NEWMAC. … KSC and Middlebury have played regularly since 2011-12, and the Owls lead the all-time series 7-5 … Fans got a good look at the new uniforms being worn by referees this year that feature all black in the shoulder area. It was a veteran crew including old friend Alan Libardoni of Brattleboro.