The New England College Men’s Basketball team finished up the 2019-2020 season winning their first New England Collegiate Conference Championship title. The Pilgrims went 21-7 on the season, with a conference record of 10-2. They went a perfect 13-0 at home and finished first in the NECC.
The team went 2-2 against ranked opponents in the regular season, featuring a win over Worcester Polytechnic Institute, a close three-point loss to Nichols College, a nail-biting one-point loss to Middlebury College, and a three-point victory over Tufts University.
The Pilgrims were looking to avenge their 2019 Final Four loss to Mitchell College, who hit a buzzer beating three to knock off the then top seeded Grims at home.
“After coming off last year’s heartbreaking loss to Mitchell our expectations this year were winning the conference or bust,” stated sophomore guard Stephen Fama. “And we achieved our goal.”
Late in January the Pilgrims suffered a 20-point lost to Eastern Nazarene College. This sparked an eight-game win streak heading into playoffs, which included a payback victory over Eastern Nazarene.
Led by junior guard Calvin Cheek, who led all divisions in steals per game with 4.25, the Pilgrims amassed 402 steals this season, with their opponents only grabbing 168 against them. They also averaged 27.6 points off turnovers, and 15.8 assists per game.
“We believe our defensive pressure was our team’s identity,” said Head Coach Charlie Mason. “Moving forward, our ability to continue this type of defensive pressure will be our biggest challenge, as we try to build on our recent momentum.”
Coach Mason wrapped up his 18th season at NEC, winning Coach of the Year in the NECC, his third straight time winning the postseason honor. Cheek also won Defensive Player of the Year for the third straight time.
“We are proud of this past season, winning is hard!” said Coach Mason. “Our season was highlighted by our third consecutive 20-win season; our first-ever regional ranking in the Northeast (final three weeks of the season) and our second conference tournament championship in three years.”
In the final seconds of the NECC Championship game against Mitchell College, Cheek hit a three to ultimately seal the deal for the Grims, exacting revenge for their loss in the final four in the previous season.
“I was just in pure disbelief, like we really just won this thing,” noted sophomore guard Jamal Allen. “Being down 16 with 8 minutes left isn’t normal to comeback from, so it was a good feeling.”
Senior guard Izaiah Winston-Brooks led the Pilgrims in scoring, averaging 17.6 points per game. He was followed closely behind by Allen, who on top of averaging 15.8 points per game, broke the program record for three-pointers made in a game with nine.
“We will return 6 of our top 7 players in regard to minutes played. Among this group includes: Chauncee Cheek, 3-time defensive player of the year and a three-time all-conference selection; Stephen Fama, who led the team in minutes played this year, and is a two year starter; Jamal Allen, an all-conference selection this season; and Kareem Octavien,” noted Coach Mason. “The best part of graduation is that it allows others to step forward in leadership roles and I am excited to see our core group move forward in this area.”
The Pilgrims will be graduating five seniors this spring, who in their time at NEC won a conference championship in the NAC as well as the NECC.
“The biggest thing that I will miss from this year’s seniors was the leadership and the fact that every single one of them made sacrifices and put the team before themselves,” said Fama.
Coach Mason echoed this appreciation for these five players noting, “Alonzo, Joe, Justin, John and Izaiah have given their hearts and souls to our program the last four years and we are most excited that they get to leave on such a high note!”
While the returners and the young core have some successful shoes to fill, Coach Mason is excited for the future of this group. “Larry McKinney and Michael Tavilla (2-time NECC Rookie of the Week) played significant roles this past season for us. Likewise, I think there is potential for guys like DaeJon Pendelton-Mills; Chibita Ihunwo; and Gequan Kee,” stated Coach Mason. “As we move forward, we are excited to see our sophomore class step forward as well. Guys like Errol Crawford and Jefferson Fleury have the length and athleticism to really blossom as upperclassmen with continued hard work.”
Senior guard Alonzo Cooper hopes his former teammates keep up the intensity the program was able to establish in the last couple of years. “I would like to see more guys in the gym working out together pushing each other to their full potential,” said Cooper. “To all the returners, remember how we lost our last game in the past two years. That feeling is a feeling you don’t ever want to feel, so make each and every practice and game count.”
On top of Mason and Cheek’s postseason awards, Winston-Brooks and Cheek were named to the First Team All-NECC, Allen was named to Second Team All-NECC, and senior guard Justin Eck was named to the Del Malloy Sportsmanship team.
In addition, Cheek was named the NECC Tournament MVP, and named to the NECC All-Championship Team with McKinney.
The Pilgrims suffered a tough one-point loss in the First Round of the NCAA Tournament to RPI at Tufts University, 57-58. Even though they were close to achieving their dream of playing in the second round, Coach Mason is appreciative of this year’s success and is looking forward to striving for a two-peat next season.
“Winning is hard and to overcome in a championship game which included a 16-point deficit with less than 9 minutes to go or an 8-point deficit with 2 minutes to go is not something we are going to soon forget,” remarked Coach Mason. “Equally important, we are proud to have won the NECC championship along with our women’s basketball team! I can say with confidence, we were just as excited with our women’s team winning this year (their second consecutive conference championship in as many years), as we were winning ourselves. In short, it is not often when both the women’s and men’s basketball programs from the same college win their conference championships in the same season!”