Tournament MVP Stephen Gabel scored a game-high 19 points with five three-point baskets and the Golden Flyers held off a late charge by top-seeded Utica Saturday to win the Empire 8 Conference championship in men’s basketball with a gritty 54-53 victory over the Pioneers.
The championship marked the fourth E8 men’s basketball title for the Golden Flyers and the third under the direction of head coach Kevin Broderick, now in his 13th season. The Golden Flyers, at 23-4 overall, equaled a school record for wins and Nazareth will be making its ninth NCAA Tournament appearance after gaining the conference’s automatic bid.
The Golden Flyers (23-4 overall) will play Westfield State (22-4) of Massachusetts in a first-round match-up Friday at 6:05 p.m. on Mike Daley Court at the Kidera Gymnasium. That game will be preceded a game between Emerson (18-7) and UMass-Dartmouth (24-4) at 3:35 p.m. The winners will meet Saturday at 6:05 p.m. for a berth in the tournament’s Sweet 16. Tickets for each day are $15 for adults and $10 for students and senior citizens.
Gabel’s final stat line included 7-of-14 shooting from the field and nine rebounds. Kevin Underwood added 13 points and Logan Blankenberg scored 10 with a pair of three-pointers. Jonathan Park had eight points, three blocks and a game-high 11 rebounds.
To win Saturday, Nazareth led by as many as 15 points in the early stages of the second half, then had to hang on for dear life to prevail in the closing seconds.
Up 52-41 after a basket by Underwood with 6:30 left, Nazareth’s scoring drought covered more than five minutes and enabled the Pioneers to score 12 straight points to take a 53-52 lead with 1:51 to go.
Underwood then scored what proved to be the game-winning basket with 1:21 left as neither team scored thereafter. Nazareth had a chance to extend its advantage, but Park missed the front end of a one-and-one free throw opportunity with :14 left, enabling Utica to take timeout with :12 left to set up a final shot.
The play was set up for Utica’s Thomas Morreale, who misfired on a contested drive to the basket. Park secured the hard-fought rebound and was able to dribble out the final seconds.
Gabel, who scored 25 points in Friday’s win over St. John Fisher, scored 11 points in the first half Saturday as Nazareth led 34-23 at the half. He scored the first basket of the second half and that was followed by baskets from Zach Stenglein and Park as Nazareth’s lead gew to 40-25. Nazareth’s lead was still at double digits when the game reached the six-minute mark.
Utica’s comeback was fueled by three baskets from Chris Green (14 points) and two by Kimedrick Murphy (8 points) to set the stage for the final frantic minute. Darius Hopkins led the Pioneers with 16 points.
Nazareth went 23-for-54 from the field (42.6%) and 7-for-17 from three-point range. The Golden Flyers attempted only two free throws in the game — one by Underwood and one by Park. Utica shot 20-for-57 (35.1%) from the field and 3-for-16 from three-point range.