Men’s basketball returns to NCAA DIII Tournament after capturing second straight MASCAC title

February 27, 2024
By: Paul Davey

Worcester State’s men’s basketball team is headed to the NCAA DIII Tournament for the second year in a row after a historic MASCAC Championship 80-79 overtime win against Bridgewater State Feb. 24.

The Lancers will head to Washington D.C. this week to face Catholic University of America on Friday, March 1. Fans can watch the livestream starting at 5:45 p.m. The team heads into the tournament with a conference record of 10-2 and overall 18-9. The 2023 and 2024 back-to-back conference championships are a first for men’s basketball.

According to head coach Tyler Hundley, the team’s maturity and relentless spirit was a key factor in the team’s success both in the MASCAC final and throughout the entire season. “We have an older group this year, so we are a little bit more mature, ” said Hundley. “I think that our leadership and our maturity is what separated us at the end of the game, and got us over the hump.”

In 2023, the Lancers beat Westfield State in the MASCAC finals to secure the championship after a 22-6 season. The team appeared in the first round of the NCAA DIII Tournament, where they lost to Middlebury College.

The 2024 MASCAC Championship game was an intense showdown between the one-seeded Lancers and the two-seeded Bridgewater State Bears. The Lancers opened the game with a flurry of baskets to take an early 10-2 lead. Graduate student Zion Hendrix (Alexandria, VA) drained a three-pointer, scoring the Lancers first points of the afternoon. Senior guard Sam Dion (Barre, MA) joined Hendrix, splashing a three of his own to start the Lancers off hot. The Bears were determined to not let this one get out of hand early as Bears senior Precious Okoh (Brockton, MA) drained a three to chip away at the early Lancer run. Senior Justin Parsons (Portsmouth, RI) joined the three-point party, splashing one of his own to tie the game 14-14.

Seven minutes remained before Bears first-year Josh Campbell (Plymouth, MA) hit a corner three giving his team the first lead 23-20 since the opening bucket. Parsons again would hit a three to give the Bears an eight-point lead heading into the half.

The beginning of the second half was the opposite of what ensued in the first. Bridgewater made a strong run early on, scoring a quick five points to jump out to a 44-37 lead three minutes into the period. Goris ended the run by stripping the ball out of the Bear player’s hands, finding Nkrumah for a Lancer bucket to cut the lead to 44-39.

“We chipped away at it, and it was pretty much back and forth from there,” said Hundley.

Sophomore Louis Jennings (Walpole, MA), feeling it from downtown, drained another three to quiet the intense Lancer crowd. Goris blocked a shot, leading to a Lancer bucket from Hendrix cutting the deficit to four. Okoh, attempting to see his team to a championship, swished a three to bring the Bridgewater State lead back to seven. Rubenskas answered with four points on two straight possessions before being matched by another Okoh three to kill off the run.

An intense back and forth would continue to take place in this high stakes game.

Nkrumah launched a three to take the Lancers first lead since early in the first half with five minutes remaining. Halbleib answered with a slam to give the lead right back to Bridgewater. Parsons retaliated with another three-pointer to give the Bears a five point lead. Nkrumah responded with a big three of his own to bring the Lancers within one. Rubenskas would go for the slam to make the score 69-68 in crunch time. Nkrumah was called for a shooting foul on the drive, his fifth of the evening which saw him out of the game.

The Lancers fouled first year Josh Cambell (Plymouth, MA) for a one-and-one, and he gave his team a three-point lead. Marching down the court with seven seconds left, Sam Davies launched a deep three to tie the game, in a season defining moment to bring the Lancers in OT.

“Zion Hendrix made a terrific heads-up play. He got the inbound, saw that the guy was going to foul him, and he gave it up quickly to Sam Davies,” said Hundley. “It was a deep three, but he was open, so he shot it, let it fly, and it luckily went in.”

Not surprisingly the two top-seeded teams forced the MASCAC Championship into overtime action. Dion started off overtime with a steal on Bears sophomore Dante Kikuba (Framingham, MA), leading to a Rubenskas lay-up from Davies. Hablieb was fouled, sending him to the line for two shots, only making one, the score would settle at 75-74. Hendrix hit a critical three to pull ahead 78-74 while the Bear’s Campbell was fouled making one shot at the line bringing the score to 78-76.

Okoh drove to the lane, elevated for a layup, and was called for a foul while making the shot. He proceeded to make the free throw in enemy territory to put his team up one with forty-six seconds remaining in the championship. In the next possession, Hendrix as ball handler for Worcester, tossed a pass that was stolen by Kikuba who read the play perfectly with the Bears getting a shot off, which bounced off the rim to be collected by Hablieb who went back up with the ball as he scored, but a goaltending charge negated the basket for the Bears and returned possession to Worcester State in the final seconds. Bringing the ball up the court with sixteen seconds remaining, the ball found Rubenskas who swung it to regulation hero Sam Davies with the guard driving the lane and making the go-ahead layup with twenty-three seconds to secure the Championship for the Lancers as a last second three point attempt by Parson would fall well short of the basket.

Precious Okoh finished the afternoon off with twenty-two points, adding nine rebounds and three assists. Emerson Halbeib scored seventeen points with thirteen rebounds. Brandon Goris had nineteen points with two rebounds.

Editor’s Note: Worcester State Athletics contributed to this story.

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