BENNINGTON >> The final margins were a little closer than during the regular season, but Southern Vermont College was on the winning side of the scoreboard both Friday and Saturday night to capture the 2016 New England Collegiate Conference men's basketball championship on its home court.
Held breaths filled the Mountaineer Athletic Center Saturday as Becker College put up a potential game-winning three-pointer as time expired in the title game. The good look taken by Kyle Credle was headed for the rim, only to bounce wayward and allow the SVC fans to rush the court in celebration after a 74-72 win in the finals of the NECC tournament.
"I couldn't be more proud of this group of guys and staff," said SVC head coach Dan Engelstad.
In just his third year at the helm of the program, Engelstad raised the tournament trophy with his guys.
"It's special. It's what we've dreamed of. When I took this job, I had a vision for this place, and this has actually surpassed what I dreamed this place could be," Engelstad said. "We have special people around here, including an exceptional student body. When you surround yourself with the right people, special things can happen, and it's fun to see this take place."
The Mountaineers went a perfect 16-0 in NECC play during the regular season, outscoring their opponents by an average of 21.9 points per game.
But this past weekend was different — this was the playoffs, when teams put it all on the line for the chance to be conference champions and garner a spot in the national dance.
"Those were two of the most physical games that we've been in this entire season," Engelstad noted. "Those teams are so disciplined. They beat you up, they rebound the heck out of the ball, that's what championship teams do. And that's what they were — very successful programs in our league — and we were very fortunate to come out with two huge wins."
Mountaineer senior Casey Hall kept his double-double streak alive, registering his fifth straight with a game-high 18 points and 12 rebounds on the glass. He was selected as the tournament's Most Valuable Player for his performance over the weekend.
"The only thing that was on my mind was getting this championship, and I'm so happy we were able to pull it out. I just know that every game's not guaranteed, that every time I stepped out onto that court might have been the last time. I went out there and gave it my all every time," Hall said.
"Casey has matured unbelievably in the second part of this conference season," Engelstad said. "I feel like he's been the best player in this league. He just dominated on both ends; his athleticism, his ability to block shots, and now he's added the offensive component. In the Regis game, he willed us to win- he willed it to happen. His leadership was so vital. When we were down, he was the one we looked to. He's the one that gave us the inspiration and leadership."
DeShawn Hamlet also played his final game on the MAC parquet, recording a double-double of his own with 13 points and a game-best 16 rebounds, 12 of those boards coming on the defensive glass for him to pick up an All-Tournament Team honor.
"It feels great to get to where we are now with Coach Dan and it feels great to finish my senior year with a championship. The hard work we put in every day in practice — I love it," Hamlet said.
"I was so impressed with [DeShawn's] defensive effort this weekend," Engelstad said. "He rebounded the ball terrifically both nights, so it was great to see him step up in that area because that's been a weakness for him; to see it become a strength is great for our team."
SVC is now headed off to this upcoming weekend's NCAA Division III tournament, its opponent and destination to be announced during Monday's 12:30 p.m. selection show.
"I know our team has no fear. I imagine we'll play some really good teams and that we'll have our hands full. But, like I told my guys afterward, there's not a group in the country — and that includes the best teams in the country — that I'd rather go to battle with and go grind these games out with. I'm really excited to see how we perform on this stage. Our guys like the bright lights, and we look forward to carrying this momentum onto the NCAA tournament," Engelstad said.
Southern Vermont improved to 24-3 on the year with Saturday's victory, extending its winning streak to 16 games while capturing its first-ever NECC title. This will be the team's second appearance in the NCAA tournament as the Mountaineers won the Great Northeast Athletic Conference championship in 2003. The team is only one win shy of tying its single season record of 25.