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Queens Knights claims NYCAC crown, earn NCAA berth

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When the Queens College men’s basketball team earned its first bid into the Division II NCAA Tournament last year, more than a few teams in the Northeast questioned its at-large bid.

Teams in both the New York Collegiate Athletic Conference and the Northeast-10 Conference didn’t understand why the Knights, with a less than spectacular 17-10 record, went instead of some other teams.

But on Saturday afternoon at Fitzgerald Gymnasium, No. 3 Queens made sure there would be no questions this year.

Instead of backing their way in, the Knights walked through the front door into their second consecutive Big Dance, winning their first NYCAC tournament championship with a convincing 80-63 win over fifth-seeded New York Tech.

“This is so much bigger than last year because there were so many doubters,” said Queens junior guard Gary DeBerry, who had 13 points and was named to the NYCAC All-Tournament team. “We lost by 50 [86-36 to Metro State College] the first game of the year and now we’re champions. No one can take this away from us.”

Queens (19-10), which set a school record for wins in a season, earned the No. 6 seed in the six-team Northeast Regional and will face No. 3 Pace (20-7) from the Northeast-10 Conference Thursday at 5:30 p.m. at SUNY-Old Westbury. Host Adelphi (26-2) is the top-seed for a second straight year and earns a first-round bye, as does No. 2 Assumption (23-5).

UMass-Lowell (19-8) is the fourth seed and Northeast-10 champions Bentley (20-9) is fifth. The winner of the Northeast Region advances to the Elite Eight in Evansville, Ind.

“They came in and did everything they were supposed to do. They deserved it and now we want to go to the NCAA Tournament and win a game,” said Queens College head coach Kyrk Peponakis. “We’re not just going to be happy to be there. We learn from our mistakes and our opportunities. We were 13-10 and we won six straight and now look where we are.”

Peponakis was downright giddy after the game, and for good reason.

For a second straight game, the Knights didn’t make things interesting in the final moments. Just as they did in an 18-point semifinal win over Bridgeport Friday night, Queens closed the door on the Bears.

Led by Jermain Hollman, who had 20 points, New York Tech (18-14) cut its deficit from 14 to just six, 63-57 on a three-pointer from the top of the key by Patrick Tunstead (14 points) with 5:55 left in the second half.

But tournament MVP Phil Lyons slashed to the basket and after New York Tech’s Kendall Holloman (15 points) scored on a putback, Dave Trani nailed one of his four three-pointers to extend Queens’ lead to 68-59 with 3:34 left.

Trani, a junior from Northport who had 16 points, added another long-range jumper and the Knights closed out the game going 7-of-8 from the foul line in the final 1:48 to cruise to victory.

“Their quickness was a problem and they made some big shots,” said New York Tech coach Sal Lagano, whose young team shocked top-seeded Adelphi 68-66 in the semifinals Friday. “I can walk out of here knowing we got beat by a team that deserves to win.”

Lyons scored a game-high 21 points less than 14 hours after needing seven stitches to close a cut on his bottom lip suffered in the first half against Bridgeport. The senior point guard got home from Winthrop University Hospital in Mineola about 2 a.m. and finally fell asleep around 5 a.m.

Lyons was back at Queens at 11 a.m. but didn’t feel the least bit tired — even after just four hours of rest — in his final game at Fitzgerald Gymnasium.

“This is like a dream,” Lyons said. “When I sat down in the first half, I wasn’t tired, I didn’t feel any pain. All I know is that I would have felt tears if we lost.”

Even though he didn’t have a vested interest in the game, DeBerry said he felt tears welling up as he watched the Adelphi women’s team celebrate its NYCAC Tournament win over Dowling before the men’s final.

With Queen’s “We are the Champions” blaring over the PA system, the former Holy Cross standout from St. Albans watched the top-seeded Panthers walk, one by one, up a ladder to cut down the nets.

About three hours later, DeBerry and the Knights took their turn climbing the ladder, wearing NYCAC champions T-shirts, cutting off pieces of the net to keep as mementos.

The final thread was cut off by Peponakis, who wore the remainder of the netting around his neck.

“Cutting that thing down, there’s nothing better than that,” Peponakis said. “That’s what we came here to do and that’s what it’s all about.”

Queens College 88, Bridgeport 70. Led by DeBerry, who scored a game-high 25 points and Trani, who added 19, the Knights shot an astounding 72.4 percent (21-of-29) in the second half and went on a 20-9 run to put away seventh-seeded Bridgeport (14-14). Brett Kindleman led four Purple Knights in double figures with 13 points.

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

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