With less than a minute remaining before No. 3 Fairleigh Dickinson hosted No. 3 St. Francis (PA) in a Northeast Conference semifinal Saturday night, both teams got a huge and expected break.
Some 234 miles away in North Andover, Mass., top-seeded Merrimack won its game over No. 4 Sacred Heart, meaning the winner of the other semifinal would earn the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament as the final runner-up in the NEC.
About two hours later, shortly after junior guard Joe Munden Jr. washed home a two-handed dunk, FDU hit the mark with a 70-50 win in front of an intimate but enthusiastic crowd of 1,207 at the Rothman Center that stormed the court.
No matter what happens in Tuesday’s Northeast Conference championship game between red-hot Merrimack (17-16, 12-4 NEC) — winners of 10 straight — and FDU (19-14, 11-6) at Merrimack, the Knights will go to the Big Dance because the Warriors is in year 4 of the transition from division 2 to division 1 and is not eligible for the tournament.
“We’re really excited, we’re going to the big dance,” first-year coach Tobin Anderson said. “The reality is it’s a unique situation. We also have a conference championship game Tuesday at Merrimack and we want to win that game.”
Guard Grant Singleton, who followed Anderson from Division 2 St. Thomas Aquinas along with fellow guard Demetre Roberts (game-high 18 points), said the Knights can try to replicate what Saint Peter’s did a year ago when they made a run to the Elite Eight.
“That’s what we can do,” he said after scoring 12 points with 4 assists. – We absolutely believe that we can do it. We are a team full of winners so it will be a special thing to do.”
A year from now, Merrimack, coached by Milltown, NJ, native Joe Gallo, will be eligible for the NCAA Tournament. They are also ineligible for the NIT this season, because the NCAA controls the NIT. Gallo led Merrimack to the 2019–20 NEC regular season championship, as they became the first team ever to win a conference title in their first season of Division I membership.
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The transitional rule is a ten-year-old agreement and one that seems to need to change. Why shouldn’t a team good enough to win its conference tournament get to compete in the sport’s most prestigious event?
A year ago, Bellarmine won the A-Sun Tournament but was not allowed to play in the NCAA Tournament because they are moving to Division 1. Jacksonville State, the league’s regular season winner, went instead.
Last July, Bellarmine senior guard Juston Betz wrote a letter to the NCAA asking for his team’s chance to qualify and compete in next season’s tournament.
“There is nothing more powerful than a community of people fighting for what they know is right,” Betz wrote in a letter he shared with The Courier Journal. “I just ask that the NCAA and all parties involved also fight for what is right, what is best for the student-athletes and participating Division I institutions. I truly believe there is no better time than now to reconsider a rule that was put in place over 25 years ago.”
As for FDU, they have had a huge turnaround. A year ago, the Knights went 4-22 under Greg Herenda, who was then fired.
He was replaced by Anderson, a 51-year-old Wesleyan University graduate who previously led Division 2 St. Thomas Aquinas to six NCAA Tournament appearances and brought with him two transfers, guards Roberts (18 points) and Singleton.
“I’m in pretty good hands with these two handling the ball,” Anderson said. “It’s been a fun ride, but we have more to do, I think.”
The Knights are now headed back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2019, when they beat Prairie View A&M in a First Four game before getting hammered by No. 1 Gonzaga, 87-49. They are likely headed back to the top four in Dayton as a 16 seed again.
“Our name is going to come up on Selection Sunday and we’re going somewhere, we’re going all in,” Anderson said.
Against St. Francis, which entered with a losing record (13-18, 9-8 NEC), FDU took a 35-28 halftime lead, prompting Scott Reynolds, the father of freshman guard Brayden Reynolds, to yell at the team as they walked off the field, “Twenty more minutes, guys.”
Two hours later, the students stormed the court.
“I’ve been in college for five years, I’ve never been a part of it,” Roberts said. “It was amazing to see. My first time it was great.”
On Tuesday, FDU will have a chance to put to rest any questions about their legitimacy when they travel to Merrimack to face the Warriors.
“Absolutely, that’s what it’s about,” Scott Reynolds said. “Win the championship, right?”
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Adam Zagoria is a freelance reporter covering Seton Hall and NJ college basketball for NJ Advance Media. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamZagoria and check out his website at ZAGSBLOG.com.