Husson men's basketball draws Wesleyan as NCAA 1st-round foe

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Feb. 28—Husson's two-year journey to return to the NCAA Division III men's basketball tournament will take the Eagles to Middletown, Connecticut, this weekend.

Coach Warren Caruso's club, 15-9 after winning the North Atlantic Conference championship in hair-raising fashion last weekend, will face New England Small College Athletic Conference champion Wesleyan University at 7:40 p.m. Friday in an opening-round game at Silloway Gymnasium.

"Two years ago we got knocked out by SUNY Canton [in the NAC tournament] and the first thing we said after that was we were going to get back to this point and try to get a championship and that's what we did," said Husson senior guard Justice Kendall, named most valuable player of the NAC tournament.

"It's definitely been a grind, a hard-fought journey but it's all been worth it for me."

Wesleyan (24-3) captured the NESCAC title last weekend with a 78-75 overtime victory over Williams and will host a four-team pod that includes another first-round game at 5:10 p.m. Friday between Nichols College (25-3) and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (21-5).

Friday's winners will meet in a second-round game on Saturday, with that survivor advancing to the Division III Sweet 16.

"I think our guys are well-tested in a lot of different ways throughout the season and I'm really proud of how we played through the NAC tournament in two really close games where we operated with some high efficiency at both ends of the floor," said Caruso, whose team will be making its eighth NCAA tournament appearance and seeking its first victory.

"So we'll look forward to the opportunity to head to Connecticut and compete and play at the highest level and hopefully we can come out and advance."

Husson fell to SUNY Canton on Feb. 28, 2020, in that year's NAC semifinals, and two weeks later the arrival of COVID-19 shut down sports around the country.

That included the later stages of that year's NCAA Division III tournament as well as the 2020-21 postseason, leaving 2019 NCAA tournament winner Wisconsin-Oshkosh as the defending national champion as the 2022 tournament begins.

Husson was more fortunate than most of their peers last winter, playing a 10-game schedule that involved mostly in-state competition.

It was the first step in the Eagles' rise toward a return to the NCAAs.

"Playing 10 games last year, which is a lot more than a lot of teams in New England got to play, and going 10-0 just brought us together as a team," said graduate student Justin Thompson of East Millinocket, the reigning Maine College Basketball Coaches and Writers' Association player of the week.

"That set the foundation for this year from the day-to-day standpoint of what we needed to do to get to where we are now."

This year's team endured a challenging non-conference schedule, a canceled holiday-season trip to California and its own COVID-19 issues at the start of the second semester but regrouped in time to go 8-2 during its conference regular-season schedule to edge UMaine-Farmington for the NAC East Division's top seed thanks to its two victories over the Beavers.

Husson avenged a late-season loss to Northern Vermont-Lyndon in the first round of the playoffs before outlasting UMF 64-63 for the third time on a last-second shot by senior guard J Thomas in the semifinals and edging SUNY Poly 57-53 in Saturday's conference championship game to earn its first NCAA automatic bid since 2019.

"One thing I've learned about this group is that we don't blink in close games," Thompson said. "The Farmington game it seemed like we were down two or four the whole second half, but as far as being prepared for the games to come it's important to know you've been in close games before and you're battle tested."

Senior guard D.J. Bussey leads Husson with 15.0 points per game while Thompson (14.7 ppg, 8.5 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game) and Kendall (13.5 ppg, 3.5 apg, 1.9 steals per game) are other statistical leaders.

Wesleyan, a winner of its last eight games and 12-2 at home this season, features 6-7 senior guard Sam Peek (18.0 ppg, 6.9 rpg), one of five Cardinals' scorers to average in double figures.

"We've got to take it one game at a time, and we can only look at who's in front of us," Kendall said. "They're a good team, but as long as we go out there and play our hardest and go out there fighting, that's all that matters to me."

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