You could just tell from the start that this one was going to come down to the final seconds.
Why wouldn’t it? We’re talking about Keene State and Eastern Connecticut State in the Little East Conference tournament.
It was the Keene State men’s basketball team that came out on top in this battle, 80-79, Friday at Spaulding Gym to advance to the LEC final.
The second semifinal game, between UMass-Dartmouth and Rhode Island College, was also supposed to be played Friday, but was moved to Monday because of issues with COVID tests. Because of the postponement, the LEC championship game was moved to Thursday at 6 p.m.
Eastern Connecticut State had a one-point lead with 45 seconds left, but two free throws from senior James Anozie, who finished with 16 points, put Keene State over the top, and the lead stuck.
“For a while … we felt like [Anozie] was one of our better free-throw shooters,” said Keene State head coach Ryan Cain. “So, I had a ton of confidence with him going to the line.
“It’s a very fitting way for us to get back to the championship game,” Cain added, alluding to the accolades Anozie has built up during his time at Keene State.
Sophomore Jeff Hunter finished with a team-high 17 points, really finding his rhythm in the second half.
Hunter scored nine points in just a two-minute stretch midway through the second half.
“I was just playing basketball,” Hunter said. “To me, points and stuff don’t matter. I felt like I was there the whole game, making an impact.”
In his first Little East Conference tournament action, freshman Mason Jean Baptiste looked comfortable, finishing with 16 points and five rebounds.
“The talk of our team has been that we’re a young team,” Jean Baptiste said. “I think it’s good that we got to play against a little adversity the last couple of games. Moving forward, we’re just trying to get better day-by-day.
“Eastern is a great team, and we did what we needed to do down the stretch to come away with the W,” he added.
Neither team found much rhythm at the start of the game, but late in the first half, down by five, Jean Baptiste cut the lead with a layup and freshman Jordan Santos (nine points) tied the game with a three.
Then, freshman Nate Siow (seven points) hit a three-pointer to give the Owls the lead with just over 3:30 left in the first half.
Keene State was picking up some scraps of momentum, and it led to a 16-5 Owl run in the final minutes, including an alley-oop from Jeric Cichon to Santos, and Keene State led 41-35 at the half.
But in the blink of an eye, the Warriors had cut their deficit to just one point.
It was back-and-forth for the final minutes, and Anozie eventually got to the line and hit the game-winning free throws with 22.3 seconds on the clock.
Now, after the postponement, the Owls have a few extra days to prepare for the LEC final.
“It goes along the lines of everything we’ve done so far,” Cain said of the delayed championship. “It’s not anything we haven’t encountered throughout our season. So it’s just ... making sure these guys are mentally and physically ready to play.”
When all is said and done, the Owls will have a shot at their second LEC title in the past three seasons.
“I look forward to these guys competing and having a chance at a championship,” Cain said.