WILLIMANTIC, Conn. – Fourth-seeded UMass Dartmouth men's basketball fought a hotly contested battle all afternoon, but couldn't hold off the No. 3 seed Keene State Owls, falling by an 86-81 score in the2016 Little East Conference Championship Sunday at Eastern Connecticut State University's Geissler Gymnasium.
The Corsairs close the season at 17-11 after advancing to the program's first conference title contest since 2009. The Owls rise to 18-10 with the win, capturing the LEC crown for the second-consecutive year and receive the league's automatic bid to the NCAA Division III Championship.
UMass Dartmouth senior Jordan Rezendes (Onset, Mass.) led the Corsairs in the scoring column as he has in every game this season, registering 22 points on 7-of-18 shooting with four 3-pointers. All of his points came in the first half.
Posting his best outing of the season was junior Chris Mendes (Somerset, Mass.), who scored 18 points, all in the second half. On the boards, the Corsairs saw nine rebounds apiece from freshmen Nick Portelance (Fairhaven, Mass.) and Atakan Akcam (Hoosac Falls, N.Y.).
Keene State had four reach double-figures, paced by freshman Ty Nichols' (Springfield, Mass.) 20 points. Senior guard Nate Stitchell (Coventry, R.I.) dropped in 19 points with three buckets from beyond the arc to earn the tournament's Most Outstanding Player honor. Junior Matt Ozzella (Medway, Mass.) finished with 16 points and nine rebounds and senior Tre' Tipton (Stamford, Conn.) chipped in 10 points.
The Corsairs began the game on one of their hottest starts of the year. Rezendes bookended an opening 21-6 run over the first seven minutes of play with two 3-pointers. Keene State then gained its composure, as senior Nate Howard (Cheshire, Conn.) put in the next two baskets. The Owls turned the tides and closed the stanza on a 21-5 five run to take a 47-44 lead into the half.
The second half was a much more evenly-played affair, as Keene State was not able to build a lead any higher than eight points in the last 20 minutes. Corsair junior Abi Akanni (Fitchburg, Mass.) tied the score out of the gate with a long-range bucket, but the Owls kept inching ahead until the 9:28 mark, when two Nichols free throws gave his team its largest advantage yet. UMass Dartmouth scored the next six points to pull within one.
Baskets were traded for the final six minutes, with Keene still holding a slight advantage throughout. UMass Dartmouth was forced to begin fouling for possession, and the Owls sealed the performance by hitting nine of their 10 free throw chances in the final minute of play.
Both teams turned in a solid shooting night, as the Corsairs went 31-of-76 (40 percent) and the Owls 27-of-59 (45 percent). UMass Dartmouth out-rebounded Keene State by 10, but the difference came at the charity stripe, with the Owls reaching the line 35 times to UMass Dartmouth's 15.
As the lone UMass Dartmouth senior, Rezendes closes his two-year Corsair career as one of the most prolific scorers in program history. He owns the single-game records for points (58) and 3-pointers (10) and season records for total points (831), free throws made (210) and 3-pointers made (103). This season, he led all of Division III in scoring with his total points and his average of 29.7 points per game.