The NEC men’s basketball tournament championship game Tuesday in Loretto, Pa., will feature a battle of South Jersey cousins with 6-8 senior Mike Holloway Jr. of the 19-13 Knights, seeded second, squaring off against Keith Braxton of 18-13 No.1-seeded St. Francis.
Streaking FDU advanced by beating Robert Morris, 66-62, Saturday and is on a 7-game winning streak, winning 13 of its last 15. The Red Flash beat last year’s tourney champion LIU-Brooklyn, 72-64, in the other NEC semifinal.
The game is at 7 p.m. at DeGot Arena in Loretto, a nearly 5-hour bus ride away.
The Knights upset SFU, 84-75, in last year’s tourney.
This is FDU’s first NEC regular-season crown since the 2005-06 season. The No. 2 seed is the highest for the Knights since being seeded second en route to winning it all in 2016. FDU has won its last three NEC titles and four of its five championships as the No. 2 seed. This year’s title game is a rematch of the 1991 final, a 97-82 Knights’ loss.
“The first year we wanted to win it,” said Head Coach Greg Herenda. “This year we have to win it. It’s a totally different perspective.”
FDU is in the postseason for the fifth time in six years under Herenda. FDU is 31-25 all-time in the NEC Tournament and has reached the finals 11 times (5-5). The Knights are 4-3 in the NEC Tournament under Herenda.
The cousins’ teams were No.1 and No. 2 in the coaches’ preseason poll and now the season comes down to those two leading their regular season co-champion teams in the dream quest for the trophy and a ticket to the NCAA tourney hanging in the balance. The teams each won on the road during the regular season.
St. Francis has its first regular-season league title since 1990-1991 and coach Rob Krimmel is coach of the year.
Braxton, named the NEC player of the year, earned player of the week honors twice this season while Holloway earned the honor once.
Braxton is the fourth leading scorer in the conference, averaging 17 along with a league leading 11 rebounds a game.
Holloway, voted second-team all-NEC, averages 14 points a game and six rebounds.
“He had his best season as a senior,” said Herenda. “I would have liked to seen him have the opportunity to compete for a championship…he’s a guy who poured his heart into his team and jersey.”
But, this game is more than about the cousins.
FDU senior 6-2 guard Darnell Edge, FDU’s first-team all-NEC pick, is the No. 3 scorer in the conference, averaging 17.5 rebounds a game and four steals. He is 6-for-6 at the free-throw line for the tournament while drilling three 3-pointers.
FDU’s floor general is Jahlill Jenkins, a 6 foot sophomore from West Virginia. Jenkins had 25 points against Central Connecticut and he’s had two 9-assist games and two five-steal games.
“To coach this team and this backcourt is a privilege,” said Herenda. “I let my guards go and they can go.”
Elyjah Williams, a 6-7 sophomore from Illinois, was a key performer in the tourney semi. He had a season-high 20 points against Army as well as four blocks and pulled down 14 rebounds against Bryant.
Saint Francis, ranked 251 in the NCAA Div. 1 NET rankings, had a challenging pre-conference schedule playing cupcake “guarantee games” on the road with a 95-58 loss to UCLA, a 101-76 loss to UNC and a 75-37 loss to Virginia Tech to enter NEC competition with a 4-7 record.
With a 10-3 record at home, Saint Francis lost to FDU in Loretto, Pa., 79-61, on Jan. 5, and avenged the loss with a 87-62 win in Hackensack. SFU, hosting the title game, has won 8 of its last 9 at home.
FDU started the season with a 90-55 loss to Rutgers. The Knights notched a 77-66 win over Princeton and a 60-54 loss to South Florida in Tampa.
Saint Francis has the edge in scoring offense, averaging 76.4 points a game to Fairleigh Dickinson’s 75.1
FDU, ranked No. 212 by the NCAA, is the better defensive team on paper, giving up 71 points a game to Saint Francis’s 75.
The Knights, riding a win streak in the NEC after a 1-4 start, are the best shooting team in the conference hitting at a .473 clip and a better free throwing team with a .727 average.
Edge led the nation in free-throw shooting last season and has followed up his record-breaking season by shooting just under 89 percent from the charity stripe this season.
FDU hits 3-pointers 40% of the time and averages 7.7 a game to SFU’s 7.5.
Edge is shooting just under 47 percent from downtown, fifth best in the nation.
On the boards, Saint Francis out-rebounds opponents by a margin of plus 3.3 a game to FDU’s slight deficit. SFU averages 25 rebounds a game to FDU’s 23.6.
FDU’s defense keys off the steal, averaging 7.8 a game while St. Francis averages 6.8. The Knights get 3.5 blocks a game to St. Francis’s 2.9.
If the regular-season performance from these two teams is any indication of what comes next, the NEC Championship Game will be one for the ages. And one that two cousins will replay at reunions!
The game will be broadcast on ESPN 2 beginning at 7 p.m.