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Queens falls in first round of NCAAs

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But last Thursday at SUNY-Old Westbury, Peponakis was a different man in the...

By Dylan Butler

Kyrk Peponakis is usually distraught after a loss. The Queens College coach goes through the game with a fine-tooth comb, analyzing every nook and cranny of his team’s mistakes.

But last Thursday at SUNY-Old Westbury, Peponakis was a different man in the post-game press conference following the Knights’ season-ending 85-67 loss to the University of Lowell-Massachusetts in the first round of the Division II NCAA Tournament.

Peponakis sported a smile, rarely if ever seen after a loss, and joked with his players. After all, this was not your typical loss. Sure the Knights wanted to win, but just getting to the school’s first-ever NCAA Tournament, which seemed unlikely even a week ago, was enough. Now the players got a taste, an appetizer. Next year, they are going for the main course.

“I know some people say that we didn’t belong here, but here we are and we’re going to try and get back here,” Peponakis said. “Now that we got here, we want to stick around a little longer. Sometimes you take a step and this was a big step.”

It was the biggest step in the program’s history. And with all but two players returning next year, it’s a step the players think they can make again.

“Since we played here this year, we should use that to come back next year,” said junior point guard Phil Lyons, who scored 12 points. “We have to step up our game a lot. We know how it feels to be in a championship game. We know we’d like to get here again.”

If they get to the NCAA Tournament again, they will have to do so without Steve Sikiric. The senior forward closed out his collegiate career with a team-high 22 points and finished 11th on the all-time Queens College scoring list, eclipsing fellow Archbishop Molloy grad Stephen Hale. Not bad for a guy who was cut his freshman and sophomore years in high school.

“It feels great to get here after three losing seasons,” Sikiric said. “We would have liked to win, but for the first time in the NCAA Tournament, this feels pretty good.”

No. 3 UMass-Lowell (24-6) threatened to blow Queens out by halftime, going on a 26-4 run to take a 30-18 lead on an 8-foot jumper by Frank Drejaj. But Sikiric single-handedly brought the Knights back, scoring seven straight points down the stretch and, on Anthony Washington’s third three-pointer of the half, sixth-seeded Queens (17-11) went into the break trailing by just four, 43-39.

The River Hawks adjusted at halftime as their coach Gary Manchel called for a more intense effort from the nation’s top defensive unit. They answered the challenge. UMass-Lowell stifled Washington in the second half, shutting out the New York Collegiate Athletic Conference Player of the Year in the final 15 minutes.

“We showed more pride [in our defense] in the second half,” Manchel said. “Sikiric and Washington really took it to us in the first half. We’re still not where we should be, but we did a better job in the second half.”

Added Washington: “Every time I came down the court, I heard them calling my number, saying to guard the shooter. Every time I caught the ball, someone was right on me. I didn’t get any good looks. The whole game they just played hard defensively.”

The perimeter shooting of Drejaj (25 points) and freshman guard Uri Grunwald (23 points) busted the game wide open early in the second half as UMass-Lowell went on a 21-4 run to take a 70-45 lead with 9:36 left in the game.

Drejaj, a 6-foot-6 senior transfer from Manhattan College, and Grunwald from Haifa, Israel, each scored career highs for the River Hawks, who advanced to play second-seeded St. Michaels in the Northeast Region semifinals Friday.

“Today it was Frank and Uri,” Manchel said. “Hopefully tomorrow, it will be Frank, Uri and a few more guys.”

For Queens, there is no tomorrow. But the usual gloom that envelops a season-ending loss was replaced with a newfound optimism for next year.

“We’re never going to settle. OK we made it, but they’re never happy,” Peponakis said. “They want to be here tomorrow. I’m happy with what we did and in about 20 minutes, I guess I will decide what we do next.”

Reach Associate Sports Editor Dylan Butler by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 143.

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