Colonials advance to NEC title game

Robert Morris 71, Wagner 64

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STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- With a little more than 30 seconds to go and Robert Morris leading by three, Velton Jones dribbled the ball behind the 3-point line on the right wing.

He faked a shot, got his defender in the air and drew the foul and three free throws.

"Finish these free throws and we have a chance to finish out the game," is what Jones recalled ran through his mind.

"That's all I was thinking. ... Just be composed, not worry about the crowd and knock them down."

Jones made all three, and in doing so secured a fourth consecutive trip to the Northeast Conference championship game for Robert Morris. The Colonials defeated Wagner, 71-64, Sunday afternoon behind 25 points from Jones, including 15 in the second half.

They will play at Long Island (24-8) at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the NEC title game with a spot in the NCAA tournament on the line. The Blackbirds defeated Quinnipiac, 78-75, in the other semifinal Sunday.

Last year, Long Island beat Robert Morris in overtime in the championship game.

Robert Morris had an 11-1 run to start the second half. That outburst turned a 31-29 deficit into a 40-32 lead. The Colonials never trailed from that point and the closest Wagner came was when Tyler Murray made a 3-pointer with a minute left to cut the lead to 65-62. On the next possession, Jones made his three free throws.

"Obviously very proud of our guys and the effort they gave," Colonials coach Andy Toole said. "We talked to them all week that the tougher team, or the team with the most will, would win that game."

The Colonials dominated Wagner on the glass, outrebounding the Seahawks, 45-30. Robert Morris grabbed 21 offensive rebounds compared to just 17 defensive boards for Wagner.

Russell Johnson and Lucky Jones had nine rebounds apiece, and Lijah Thompson grabbed eight more. The margin was probably more remarkable considering six Colonials, including every forward except Johnson, finished the game with four fouls.

"The difference in the game was probably rebounding," Seahawks coach Danny Hurley said.

It was certainly a big difference from the regular-season encounter between Wagner and Robert Morris. In that game, the Seahawks held a 34-25 advantage in rebounding and cruised to an 80-69 win.

Velton Jones also struggled in that game, scoring just nine points on 2 of 15 shooting. He was 5 of 10 from the field Sunday and made 14 of 16 free throws.

"[In the] first game I didn't play to my abilities, took some questionable shots," he said. "I just wanted to come into this game and not take bad shots and just make plays."

Jones and Toole said experience also played a role down the stretch for Robert Morris. The Colonials have played in the past three NEC title games, and won consecutive championships in 2009 and '10. Wagner was playing in its first NEC semifinal since '08.

"Down the stretch of the game, I think guys are confident because they have experience there, they've been there before," Toole said.

The Colonials certainly didn't seem fazed when they went into halftime trailing, 31-29. They had been behind by as many as eight points in the opening half.

Neither team seemed to get in a rhythm early. That's because there were 29 fouls called in the first 20 minutes. At halftime, both teams were forced to adjust to a more tightly called game.

Robert Morris came out firing in the second half, and seemed to get in an offensive flow. Anthony Myers made a 3-pointer to make it 37-32, and Lijah Thompson converted a three-point play to extend the lead to eight.

"We're two really evenly matched teams," Hurley said. "They just made enough plays in the second half. Put-backs, you know, stuff around the basket."

Latif Rivers -- who torched Robert Morris for 28 points in the first meeting -- led the Seahawks with 18 points. Murray chipped in with 15.


Sam Werner: swerner@post-gazette.com or on Twitter @SWernerPG


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