FPU men capture East region title

If you looked at the Franklin Pierce University men’s basketball team’s schedule at the start of the season, there was no trip to Louisville planned.

But the Ravens sure are happy there is one now.

With a 57-52 victory over the University of Bridgeport in the East Regional finals on Tuesday night at Southern New Hampshire University, No. 1 seeded FPU punched its ticket to the NCAA Division II Elite Eight in Kentucky. The Ravens will play the South Central Regional winner, Metro State University, after its 78-70 win over St. Mary’s University on Tuesday, in the national quarterfinals next Thursday at noon at Freedom Hall, the former home of the University of Louisville.

“It’s a great feeling,” said FPU coach David Chadbourne. “I’m incredibly proud of my team.”

FPU will take a 24-8 record into the Elite Eight, having won five of the last six games — all in postseason play. Metro State, the top seed in the South Central, is 29-2 entering next Thursday’s contest. Seven of the eight No. 1 seeds in the regionals advanced to the Elite Eight.

“Our mentality as a team is that we’re not going down there just happy to be there,” said Chadbourne. “We’re going down there to win. This is what it’s all about.”

Junior Ellis Cooper earned East Region Most Outstanding Player honors after scoring 11 points in the championship game, including three free throws in the final 10 seconds to secure the win. Cooper was also named to the All-Championship Team and was joined by senior Eric Jean-Guillaume and sophomore Ryen Vilmont.

It will be the first trip to the Division II Elite Eight in program history, falling in-line with a number of other firsts this season. No FPU team had ever played for the East Region title until the 2012-13 squad broke through with a decisive 80-63 win on Sunday over the University of New Haven. The Ravens also made its first appearance in the Northeast-10 Conference Championship Game earlier this month. It is the seventh regional title in school history, the first six coming as a member of the NAIA.

“It was one of those things we talked about prior to the season,” said Chadbourne. “I thought we were capable of it. There’s no question about that.”

But after dropping the NE-10 title game at home, the Ravens still earned the No. 1 seed in the East Region, doing so for a second straight year. A year ago, FPU was knocked out of the regional in the second round by Bloomfield College, but got a little revenge for that loss by ending the Deacons season in this year’s regional opener.

It was a slow start to Tuesday’s title tilt. The Ravens scored just 18 points in the first half and trailed by six at the break. They trailed by nine in the opening minute of the second half before going on a 12-3 run to knot the game at 30 on a second straight three from Vilmont.

“Basically the message was just relax and calm down,” said Chadbourne of his halftime talk. “We were making silly mistakes and we were allowing them to hurry us.”

After a 6-0 Bridgeport run, Vilmont drained another three, junior Andre Blackwood converted a three-point play and junior Adrianos Vourliotakis Perdikaris hit a jumper with 8:37 remaining for a 38-36 lead. It was the Ravens’ first lead since 8-6 early in the first half — one they would not give up.

Vourliotakis hit another jumper and following a Bridgeport basket, FPU jumper out to a 45-38 lead behind a Blackwood three and junior Ant Lessane’s jumper.

Bridgeport would pull within two twice in the final minute, but the Ravens would respond at the free throw line. Vilmont hit a pair from the charity stripe with 20 seconds left to make it 54-50. Then Cooper hit three of four in the final 10 seconds to secure FPU’s spot in the national quarterfinals.

Vilmont finished with a team leading 18 points, including 15 in the second half, while hitting all three of his three-point attempts.

Blackwood provided a boost off the bench, scoring 13 points in 19 minutes of action.

“We have guys who have stepped up and won us games,” said Chadbourne.

FPU shot 34.5 percent for the game and scored 17 points off 21 Bridgeport turnovers, while holding their own on the boards.

“My concern going into the game was keeping them off the glass,” said Chadbourne.

Vilmont and Cooper both scored double digits in all three regional contests, while Jean-Guillaume, the two-time NE-10 Player of the Year, finished with seven points in Tuesday’s title game after scoring at least 17 in the first two games.

The Ravens finished a perfect 6-0 at SNHU, including all three wins in the regional, a regular season victory over the Penmen and two in the season opening tournament.

“That gym has been good to us,” said Chadbourne.

FPU was the fourth seed in the NE-10 tournament and defeated Southern Connecticut State and top seeded Saint Anselm before losing to Southern New Hampshire University in the championship game. During the regular season, the Ravens were 19-7 and 16-6 in NE-10 play. They won eight of nine to start the season after earning a pair of top 10 national rankings, including the No. 2 ranking by Division II Bulletin and the 10th spot in the National Association of Basketball Coaches. After a stretch of just two wins in the next five games, FPU rattled off eight wins out of their next nine.

“The only issues we had, and it was rare, was the consistency,” said Chadbourne.

Chadbourne said after a few days off the team will get back to practice this weekend before flying to Louisville. The team is scheduled to leave Tuesday.

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