Central Conn. wins NEC tourney, earns NCAA bid

NEW BRITAIN, Conn. -- Hey Huskies, are you jealous?

Central Connecticut, which has played for years in the shadow of the mighty Connecticut Huskies, beat Sacred Heart 74-70 on Wednesday night to win the Northeast Conference tournament championship and a berth in the NCAA Tournament.

The Blue Devils (21-11) play in a 3,200-seat gym, dress only nine players, have just one player who was recruited by another major school -- and they'll be the only team from the Nutmeg State in the NCAA Tournament this season.

UConn (17-14), which has won two national titles in the last eight years, continued its disappointing season earlier Wednesday by losing in the opening round of the Big East tournament. While UConn will miss the NCAAs for the first time since 2001, Central Connecticut is making its third appearance in seven years.

"The Central Connecticut men's basketball team has as much heart, as much toughness, mentally, physically, emotionally, as any team I have ever known," said coach Howie Dickenman, a former UConn assistant and a CCSU alum who has been the Blue Devils coach for 11 years.

Dickenman joins Virginia's Dave Leitao and Penn coach Glen Miller as former UConn assistants whose teams will play in the tournament.

"We must have learned from a very good coach in Jim Calhoun," Dickenman said.

Javier Mojica scored 25 points, including a late 3-pointer that put the Blue Devils ahead to stay.

This was just the second time that two Connecticut schools have played each other with an automatic NCAA bid at stake. The first time came in 2002 when CCSU defeated Quinnipiac 78-71 on the same court.

Central Connecticut ran away with the Northeast Conference regular-season championship, going 16-2 in league play and 9-0 at home. But for much of the second half, it didn't look like CCSU would make the field of 65 either. The Blue Devils trailed 56-46 with 10:29 to play.

Mojica, the conference's player of the year, gave Central the lead for good, 70-68, on a 3-pointer with 1:36 left.

Jermino Sobers then put CCSU up four with a long jump shot, before the Pioneers' Joey Henley hit a layup with :35 seconds left to cut the lead back to two.

But Tristan Blackwood, who scored 21, hit two free throws with 22 seconds left to secure the win.

"We don't stop fighting 'til the end," Blackwood said. "We've got a big heart and we wouldn't allow ourselves to get beat."

Sobers finished with 10 points and 13 rebounds.

Henley scored 22 for Sacred Heart (18-14). Jarrid Frye added 16 points, and Ryan Litke had 12, all on 3-point shots. The Pioneers were picked to finish ninth in the conference this year but finished with their first winning season and first appearance in the conference final.

"We just come up one first short," coach Dave Bike said.

Trailing 33-30, Sacred Heart scored the last four points before intermission and the first eight after to take a 42-33 lead.

Both teams looked nervous early. Central Connecticut hit just one of its first six shots from the field, Sacred Heart was just 2-of-6, and the game was tied 4-4 five minutes in.

The lead changed hands 12 times before intermission and was tied seven times, and neither team lead by more than five.

Mojica had 13 first-half points but hit just 5-of-14 shots from the field.

"Being the leader and the captain, I felt like I had to do too much for the team, and I was rushing a lot of shots," he said. "Coaches just told me to calm down, wait and let it come to you."

Sacred Heart's Frye also scored 13 before intermission, hitting 5-of-7 shots, but was in foul trouble much of the second half and fouled out with 2:58 left.