Keene State Owls

In its first competition since Nov. 25, when it played Division 1 University of New Hampshire, and its first game against a Little East Conference opponent since last February, the Keene State College men’s basketball team exploded for a 102-82 win over Rhode Island College Saturday, climbing back from an early 14-point deficit.

“It felt great,” said head coach Ryan Cain on Monday. “It’s awesome to start back up, great to play reasonably well and get a win.”

Sophomore Jeff Hunter stole the show with 25 points and 14 rebounds, earning him LEC Player of the Week honors.

“I wanted to go out there and get a win to start off the season,” Hunter said Monday. “I just wanted to go out there and make a statement and show that we’re a new team this year, we’ve got a lot of good guys.

“I was just getting up and down the court and my teammates were just getting me the ball when they were supposed to. Everything just kind of happened naturally,” he added.

Now the team shifts their focus to containing the positive momentum from Saturday’s win and carrying it over throughout the shortened season.

There was no non-conference schedule this year, so every game holds more weight in terms of end-of-season standings. But that’s not how the team is looking at it, Cain said.

“It’s different in the sense that you play only people that you’re familiar with, but I think our mindset is different every year when you approach games depending on where your program is at,” Cain said. “At this point, we’re fairly young, so we’re really working on building this thing brick by brick and taking it day by day and trying to establish a culture where we consistently do the little things that really good programs do. And if you’re doing those things, the results take care of themselves.”

Hunter even took it so far to say that the conference-only schedule might be a positive of the adjusted season.

“It’s awesome being able to play just LEC teams because obviously that’s what you want to do,” Hunter said. “You want to win your conference, make the tournament and make a run. Playing in the LEC, it’s one of the toughest leagues around. Every night is going to be a battle.

“We try to focus on always coming into the game with the same exact mindset,” Hunter added. “We want to go out there, do what Coach Cain is telling us to do and follow the game plan and everything else will come naturally.”

The season schedule has already been changed due to COVID protocols, Cain confirmed Monday. The Owls’ game against Castleton University on Wednesday, scheduled as Keene State’s home opener, has been postponed because of COVID protocols at Castleton.

But an early wrench thrown into the season won’t derail the confidence that the team has built up through practices and their season-opening win last Saturday.

“No, it doesn’t change anything,” Hunter said about the postponement. “We take it day by day. Every single practice is a chance to get better for us and that’s our way of looking at it. We knew coming into this that it would be a little bit difficult with this COVID stuff. Every game that we get is another opportunity to win and have fun.”

It’s an opportunity that not everyone is getting this winter.

“I think our guys feel very fortunate to be playing in the Little East, playing at Keene State and having the opportunity to compete when a lot of people around them don’t have that same opportunity,” Cain said. “I think they just appreciate the opportunity to play basketball in general. So I think they feel really good about where they’re at despite it not being what everyone feels is a normal year.”

Chris Detwiler can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1411, or cdetwiler@keenesentinel.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Detwiler.