SALISBURY — The parade and the celebration are over, and it’s time for Livingstone to get back to the business of basketball.
LC men’s coach James Stinson says the Blue Bears have handled the elation and euphoria of claiming their first CIAA tournament championship well, and now they’re ready to move forward.
“I think the guys were humbled by the experience more than anything,” Stinson said. “I think they’re very appreciative they had an opportunity to do something historic for this institution and for the people of Salisbury and Rowan County, but it’s not like they’re overjoyed. They still want to go a step further.”
Taking another step will be a challenge.
Livingstone (21-7) is in the Atlantic Regional for the second straight season — this time as an automatic qualifier rather than at at-large team. But this time the seeding is more daunting. As a 22-6 team in 2013 and playing at West Liberty, W. Va., Livingstone carried a No. 5 seed and lost to No. 4 seed Fairmont State 91-73 in the opening round.
This time the Blue Bears are the No. 8 seed, which means they’re matched up with top-seeded host East Stroudsburg (Pa.) in the first round. That means the Blue Bears will be playing a road game in front of 2,000 or so hostile fans rather than a neutral-site game.
“We’d hoped that with some teams losing late in the season, we’d move up but we knew what the regional rankings were and the No. 8 seed wasn’t a big, big surprise to us,” Stinson said. “Our seed isn’t something we can control, and we focus on the things that we can. We’re looking at this is as a great opportunity. We’ll prepare as hard as we can and go play the game.”
Playing at home is a major advantage for East Stroudsburg, which is 16-0 at its Koehler Fieldhouse this season and has won 18 straight at home dating back to last season. East Stroudburg (28-1) is ranked second nationally in D-II, and its only loss was a two-point setback on Feb. 6.
To win the regional, you have to prevail three times in four days. The format is Saturday-Sunday-Tuesday. Livingstone will play East Stroudsburg at 6 p.m. on Saturday. The winner plays No. 4 Charleston (W. Va.) or No. 5 Gannon (Pa.) in a regional semifinal on Sunday.
The eight regional champions will advance to Evansville, Ind., for the national tournament that starts March 26.
East Stroudsburg isn’t a traditional power, although it’s been strong the last few years. East Stroudsburg hasn’t won a regional game since 1990.
“They’ve done a tremendous job this year, and they’re a very well-coached team,” Stinson said. “Their league (Pennsvylvania State Athletic Conference) usually has a different brand of physicality than the CIAA does, but I think East Stroudsburg is not a very typical team for their league. They’re more of an uptempo, run-and-press kind of team.”
Umtempo is the adjective that describes Stinson’s Blue Bears best.
Both teams are perimeter-oriented. Livingstone’s Mark Thomas, CIAA Player of the Year, is a crafty, shifty whirling dervish who is tough to keep off the foul line. Thomas (20.9 ppg) has shot 227 free throws this season and has converted 76 percent of those chances.
Thomas’ All-CIAA running mate Jody Hill (18.4 ppg) is a springy, long-armed bomber and an even better shooter than Thomas. Hill has rained 87 3-pointers — many from the New Trent Gym parking lot — and is an 83-percent foul shooter.
East Stroudsburg has outstanding guards in All-American Whis Grant (16.9 ppg) and Division I transfer Jamal Nwaniemeka (13.2 ppg). The other key weapon for the Warrriors (28-1) is 6-foot-5 forward Rasheed Moore, a PSAC freshman of the year. The X-factor for East Stroudsburg can be shooter Will Brown, who has popped off the bench to drill 55 3-pointers.
This time of year it’s usually guard play that decides games. Stinson expects Thomas and Hill to play well again. They are experienced, and they’ve gotten it done in big games.
“But we’ve got to have some others step us as well,” Stinson said. “We’ve got to rebound, and we’ve got to have all the right intangibles.”
Eric Mayo, a powerful, athletic 6-4 power forward is a tower of strength for the Blue Bears. A product of Shelby where he was MVP of the 2009 2A state-championship game, Mayo averages double-figure points and skies for 7.9 rebounds a game.
Livingstone’s big guys are defenders and space-eaters, so the rest of the offense comes from long Anthony Welch and flashy guard Eric Dubose, who bounce off the bench. Welch and Dubose aren’t always on, but when they are feeling it, they can be special. Livingstone will need one or both to have a huge night against East Stroudsburg.
It should help that veteran Blue Bears such as Thomas and Hill have been in a regional before. Stinson thanked last year’s senior class for setting a standard that this year’s squad has followed.
“We had some good young men last year who paved the way for this year’s team to do what it’s done,” he said.”We’ll need a total team effort, but we’ll go to Pennsylvania with the idea of building on what we accomplished last season.”
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