BY AARON GARLAND firstname.lastname@example.org
Niagara Gazette — SANBORN — The Niagara County Community College men’s basketball team’s dream start to the season hit a roadblock by mid-February and it never really recovered.
A 19-1 beginning and national ranking had the Thunderwolves thinking higher than any of the school’s past squads, and that was winning the NJCAA Region III tournament. They looked poised and able to accomplish as much and that was winning the NJCAA Region III tournament for the first time since 1979.
But once the first conference loss came — an 87-76 defeat at Monroe Jan. 25 — things unraveled. NCCC staggered to the finish line, winning three of its final seven games. It still earned fourth seed in the region.
And on Tuesday night, the aspirations of winning regionals, however deviated by that 3-5 stretch, expired. The Thunderwolves hosted No. 5 seed Mercyhurst North East in a sub-regional game for the right to travel to Monroe Community College for the region’s final four this weekend and lost, 100-77.
The shadow of some missed opportunity hovers over plenty of positives from the year.
“Just what it looks on record,” NCCC coach Bill Beilein said of how he assesses the season. “It was so great all the way basically up to February. And when it started to go bad you have to learn how to control it better so it doesn’t get away from you. That’s kind of what happened this season.”
Even with the blowout loss that didn’t really get away from the Thunderwolves until the closing minutes, the direction of the program is promising. It’s just the second time in Beilein’s five-year tenure Niagara has been trounced before the Region III tournament.
NCCC hadn’t reached regionals in the eight years prior to Beilein taking over. Each year under Beilein the team has improved in the win column, culminating to it finishing 22-7, 6-5 Western New York Athletic Conference in 2013-14.
“Every kid that we have in the locker room is self-motivated,” Beilein said. “They will learn from this. It will make them stronger, better people.”
EJ Sandoval had 18 points, eight assists and seven rebounds for the Thunderwolves while Eli Jones poured in 18 points of his own to go with 11 boards.
But 31 points, eight rebounds and six assists from Soutiri Sapnas was too much for Niagara. The Saints (19-7, 5-6 WNYAC) move on to face top-seeded and host Monroe in the regional semifinals.
Belein noted a poor defensive effort by NCCC has Mercyhurst moving on.
“It was not sliding the feet and not taking care of how quickly Mercyhurst can get the ball to the middle of the court, to the side of the court,” he said. “I think a majority of their baskets were scored in the paint.”
It was a fast start for NCCC. The Thunderwolves owned a 24-18 lead 10 minutes in and were minimizing a Saints’ offense that topped the region with 98.3 points per game.
Sheldon Zablotny, who finished with 14 points, provided a spark off the bench to help open the edge, hitting a pair of triples two minutes apart. The second trey came just prior to the midway point of the opening half and marked Niagara’s final points before an 11-0 Mercyhurst spurt, leaving NCCC down a handful.
The deficit expanded to 46-38 at the break and the Thunderwolves wouldn’t lead again.
Niagara slowly chipped away at the Saints’ advantage in the second half, and trailed, 67-61, with 8:41 to play. Shortly after, Mercyhurst nailed 3-pointers from the left wing on consecutive possessions to pull away down the stretch.
“Those back-to-back 3-pointers, it kind of created too much separation for us to catch back up,” Beilein said. “That was miscommunication on our guards.”
NCCC has five sophomores who will not be eligible to return next season — Chiedozie Udezeh, Eric Hall, Sandoval, Jordan Street and Chuka Ikpeze.
Follow contributing reporter Aaron Garland on Twitter @AA_Garland.