BENNINGTON -- It has been a long, and at times painful, road for the Southern Vermont College men's basketball team, but the Mountaineers' road to a New England Collegiate Conference tournament championship - and with it a birth in the NCAA Division III tournament - begins today with a home game against Regis College
Southern Vermont, which finished the regular season with a 10-6 conference record, 16-9 overall, just edged out Regis for the fourth seed, and the home game, in the opening round of the tournament. During the year, the teams split their two contests with each team winning at home.
"We know we have a tough challenge with Regis," said SVC coach Dan Engelstad. "They present one of the better guards in the league in Osanto Marc. We know they have some guys on the perimeter, a couple of guys that can shoot the ball, and some strength inside. It's a tough matchup."
The first of the two games this season went to Regis, 71-62, on Jan. 18. Playing on the road, Engelstad said that his team lacked the effort needed to win that game.
"It was as simple as effort. Our effort level wasn't as high the first time we played them," Engelstad said. "A couple of guys really hurt us at their place."
One of those players was Marc Jr., who posted 15 points and eight assists in the win. But the Pride also has a monster showing from Sam Jean-Gilles, who went for 23 points and hauled in 13 rebounds. In the second game at SVC on Feb. 12, the team held Jean-Gilles to just three points in fifteen minutes of action in a 62-59 win.
"We were able to get [Jean-Gilles] in foul trouble here," Engelstad said. "We did a much better job on the glass, and we were able to get out in transition and complete some of those opportunities."
"Defensively we were much better," said sophomore point guard Antoine White. "The first time we beat them, we were awful on defense. We knew if we took care of that side of the ball we would be just fine, and that will be the same game plan for tomorrow night."
The Mountaineers also topped Regis in their first game after a major roster shake-up.
DeShawn Hamlet, who had been leading the team in scoring heading into a 103-95 loss to Wheelock just four days before the Regis game, left the team. With nearly 20 points per game gone from the team, the Mountaineers have turned instead to a spread-out offensive attack.
"The scoring is much more balanced now, we aren't relying on one individual to get us 26 points," White said. "If you look at the box score over the last two games, the scoring has been much more balanced and that makes us tougher to guard."
For Engelstad, it meant shifting roles and minutes on a squad that had been undergoing constant change all season. But with a bit of stability back, he sees the benefits now.
"I think they are all comfortable in their roles now," Engelstad said. "I think that was something that was tough. We were trying early on different matchups and playing a certain way. And now I think they are going into games and having an idea when they are going to get in. I think that helps them get into a rhythm."
The scoring, though, is not what Engelstad thinks will be key to topping Regis and making a run in the NECC. For him, it always comes back to defense.
"We have to be the best defensive team in the NECC to finish this out, and if we do that I think we'll have a chance at the end of the day to be champions," Engelstad said. "We are going to have to execute and be able to get out in transition and make some plays but it all starts on the defensive end. If we are locked in a doing what we are supposed to be doing, I like our chances."
Tomorrow's game at the Mountaineer Athletic Center will tip-off at 7 p.m. For live coverage of the game as it happens, follow @GSmith_Banner on Twitter.