By David Tanklefsky (@DavidTanklefsky)
BABSON PARK – It was the last time the Babson College seniors would hear their victory song “12345 76ers” (it’s an old Philly theme song from the ’70s, look it up) as they left Staake Gymnasium Saturday night. But chances are it had never sounded sweeter.
The No. 3 Beavers (29-2) ran away from Keene State (22-9) in the second half, beating the Owls 102-79 en route to advancing to the NCAA Division III Final Four in Salem, Virginia for a second time in three years.
“It feels good to be headed back to Salem,” said senior and four-time NEWMAC Player of the Year Joey Flannery after the game. “We’ve got some unfinished business there.”
Flannery played the final home game of his Babson career in style, going 11-for-15 from the field for 29 points. He has averaged 30 points per game in the Beavers’ four tournament games this month, including a school record 38 last night in Babson’s ‘Sweet 16’ win over Tufts.
Another acceleration point came with just under seven minutes to play when Keene State’s Jimmy Layman‘s sure-thing layup rattled out of the basket and Rice turned it into a layup and a foul on the other end, putting Babson up 79-66. Two minutes later, Babson opened up a 21-point lead and a trip to Virginia was all but assured.
“We always call him the company guy because he really does whatever the company needs,” said Babson men’s basketball coach Stephen Brennan.
The Beavers return to the ‘Final Four’ is quite impressive given the fact that injuries have reduced the squad’s rotation to only seven or eight players. Rice got the start in place of forward Bradley Jacks, who played just five minutes.
“I’ve been working a lot on my three point shot,” said Rice, who was two of three from beyond the arc. “We don’t have as many guys as we did in the middle of the season and I knew I had to step up.”
The game was close throughout the first half with both teams shooting at a frightfully efficient clip. Babson connected on 61% of their first half buckets, including eight of 17 three pointers. Keene State kept pace with 58% shooting, including double digit efforts from sophomore Ty Nichols and senior Jeff Lunn. Those two combined to go 11-13 from the field in the first half.
The Owls hung tight, trailing 51-45 at the break, but Babson picked up the offensive tempo in the second half, crushing it from beyond the arc, while beginning to methodically pull away. The Beavers made four of their first six three-pointers, getting out to a 12-point lead with less than 4:30 gone by.
Another acceleration point came with just under seven minutes to play when Keene State’s Jimmy Layman‘s sure-thing layup rattled out of the basket and Rice turned it into a layup and a foul on the other end, putting Babson up . Two minutes later, Babson opened up a 21-point lead and a trip to Virginia was all but assured.
The senior group of Flannery, Rice and sixth man Matthew Droney finish up their career with an astonishing 58-7 home record at Staake Gymnasium. The Beavers have won 41 straight games when leading with five minutes to go. Keene State’s run comes to an end one round later than last season.
The Owls won three close games to reach the Elite Eight this month, including an upset win over no. 2 Christopher Newport on Friday – the Captains knocked them out in the Sweet Sixteen last year en route to the semifinals.
For Babson, a run one game deeper than their 2015 semifinal appearance would mean a historic date in the national championship. The Beavers play Whitman at 5 p.m. Friday evening.
Asked after the game if he was confident about his team’s chances, Flannery gave a short, steely answer, saying, “oh yeah.”