25 Years In The Making: For This NEC Staffer, FDU Made It A Knight To Remember

Photo: Paul Vernon

It finally happened.

After a quarter century journey chronicling the league’s bumps and bruises in the NCAA Tournament – and one excruciating near miss – FDU men’s basketball broke through in the most improbable manner possible and nabbed that elusive Round of 64 win for the Northeast Conference (NEC).

And then there were tears. Happy tears.

This one was for every NEC coach, student-athlete and administrator who had the same goal, but wasn’t able to realize it.

This one was for every current and former NEC staffer, who poured their energy into promoting NEC hoops year after year.

This one was for the underdog in all of us.

Back in 2005, Kyle Whelliston of the late, great Mid-Majority blog wrote a terrific article entitled, “How I Stopped Worrying And Learned To Love The NEC.”

The piece started with this line:

“The Northeast Conference doesn’t try to be something that it’s not, and that’s refreshing. Their mission statement strives for “athletic achievement, academic integrity and development, community outreach, and a renewed emphasis on sportsmanship,” and there’s nothing in there about sending two teams to the NCAA Basketball Tournament.”

Now, while a 2-Bid NEC might set the world on fire, the league’s aspirations are not solely analytics based. They’re more nuanced than that.

Here’s eight words that sum them up.

Let’s be the best NEC we can be.

Our drive, our passion comes from that one sentence.

Kyle figured this out 18 years ago, and it hit home that an outsider captured the essence of what the conference truly stood for and where it hoped to go.

More on that later.

But while we’re at it, allow me a quick diversion to cut-and-paste this funky passage from the article.

“The NEC is cool, in that straight-from-the-streets underground fashion label kinda way. I bought a sexy black canvas drawstring baggie with the league’s sky-blue logo on it at the conference tourney last March (best four bucks I ever spent).”

Hey, if you want to call the NEC urban chic or suburban stylish or rural rebels, we’ll take it!

The NEC is not the Big Ten, nor will it ever be.

That’s fine by us.

But that doesn’t mean for 40 minutes, on a neutral court, with locals turning into FDU stans, that the NEC can’t go toe-to-toe with the best out there…and win.

FDU went into yesterday’s first round matchup against top-seeded Purdue and it’s 7’4” beast in the middle Zach Edey with a clear mindset.

• Accentuate our strengths
• Negate our weaknesses
• Make Purdue play the type of game it didn’t want to play

Photo: Paul Vernon


All the credit goes to Tobin Anderson and co. for believing, executing and making plays when it mattered most. (We see you Sean Moore!)

As the thrill of victory set in, the win made me reminisce about many of our NCAA reps during my time with the conference.

I remember sitting in Minneapolis watching the crowd turn on an Iowa State team loaded with future NBA players as an elite Howie Dickenman-led CCSU squad pushed them to the very end back in 2000.

I remember NEC Hall of Famer Jermaine Hall trying valiantly in 2003 to overcome a rough-and-tumble Pitt team that was simply the wrong matchup for the talented Seahawks.

I remember FDU being down by just one at the half in 2005 to a No. 1 rated Illinois team that featured Deron Williams and Dee Brown. In that game, legendary announcer Dick Enberg let out a slew of his signature “Oh My!” calls as the Knights took it to the Illini.

I remember the crowd in Philly abandoning hometown Villanova as Monmouth staged a strong second half comeback in 2006.

I remember the incredible 2008 Mount St. Mary’s team choosing to go up-tempo with No. 1 North Carolina and their four future NBA stars.

I remember in 2011 the first of the run-and-gun LIU squads dropping 89 points against UNC in a track meet if there ever was one.

And then there was 2010.

The one that got away.

That March saw Mike Rice and Robert Morris draw Villanova in a 2-15 matchup that was very much to the Colonials’ liking.

The RMU combo of tough-as-nails Velton Jones and the mercurial Karon Abraham had been balling all season, and Abraham, in particular rose to the occasion on that day in Providence.

Abraham built an entire highlight reel in 33 minutes of play as the Colonials took an eight-point lead into the final media timeout.

But it was not meant to be.

Villanova star Scottie Reynolds began hurling his body into RMU defenders in an attempt to draw fouls and tilt the game in their favor – I’m still salty about this – as he went to the line 16 times on the afternoon and eight times in the final four minutes alone.

The Wildcats sent the game to OT and it wasn’t decided until Mezie Nwigwe’s last second three-pointer was off the mark and Villanova escaped with a 73-70 victory.

The RMU-Villanova finish was screaming at me throughout the FDU game last night.

“The margin of error is razor thin.”

Photo: Paul Vernon

“Please don’t let this be decided on a late call.”

“They need to make plays.”

And make plays they did.

When Moore hit his top-of-the-key triple with just over a minute to play to give the Knights a five-point lead, the game was suddenly there for the taking.

Moore’s block on the other end denied the Boilermakers, inching FDU closer to history.

Then Demetre Roberts hit two free throws with eight seconds on the clock.

Is this really happening?

Yes! They did it!

FDU became just the second 16 seed to slay a top seed, and to say they slayed a giant would be an understatement.

It was a Knight for FDU, a Knight for the NEC and courtesy of Gene Hackman, “a Knight for all the small schools that never had a chance to get here.”

What made it even more memorable was hearing from those who have been a part of the NEC community over the years, from league admins to former conference staffers to TV talent to vendors to longtime friends.

The texts were endless.

These are the people who know how special the NEC truly is and why it means so much to the conference to finally have this moment in the spotlight.

People like @MrsNECHoopsRon, who has put up with a quarter century of ups and downs.

My son, a senior in SEC country who says very little, but excitedly FaceTimed me once the game went final, couldn’t have been prouder to be a part of the NEC last night.

He literally grew up at NEC games over the years and to share in that moment with him, a decade after the heyday of his Jason Brickman and Shane Gibson fandom, was a moment that will never be forgotten.

This conference has its own plans and aspirations, and would like nothing more than to rise up the proverbial KenPom ladder and seed line to not only put the league in a position to win NCAA games on a regular basis, but to also give our own Ryan Peters some more ammunition in his NEC Overtime! Blog articles!

But progress isn’t always a linear process and external forces can add to the challenges in a sport that is the highest priority in nearly every conference.

It’s true that life as an underdog can be grueling.

But when you get hit, you get up and keep moving forward.

That’s what the NEC does best.

Photo: Paul Vernon

After FDU’s historic win, that fighting attitude brought me back to those eight words.

Let’s be the best NEC we can be.

We do our best to provide NEC student-athletes with the best possible experience.

We surround them with people who care for their well-being and are invested in their success both on and off the court.

We trust the process.

Last night, there was a payoff, and I’m truly grateful that so many in and around the league are sharing in the glow of FDU’s win.

Kyle Whelliston wrapped his Mid-Majority article 18 years ago with the following.

“Somewhere in this league, there’s a book waiting to be written. It might even be better than the cavalcade of player and coach profiles that made up The Last Amateurs.

The games will be played no matter what, it’s true. But without a poet laureate to immortalize the NEC, its story will fade further into silence as the years go by, just like so many other deserving ones.”

That can’t happen, and if someone writes a book, it has to be me, right?

There are so many stories to tell.

So many special student-athletes to chronicle.

So many underdog tales to unearth.

Well, when I write that book, it will all start with last night.

A Knight to Remember.

Definitely leading with Last Knight.

Photo: Paul Vernon

Movin’ On Up: Inside Stonehill WBB’s First Month in the NEC

Photo by Ryan Feeney

Stonehill women’s basketball is in its first season as a Division I program and member of the Northeast Conference (NEC).

In the first month of the season, Stonehill has felt what it was like to compete at the highest level of college basketball. Although the players did not sign up to play at the DI level, Stonehill was ready for the increased level of competition and enhanced spotlight on the program. That transition forced the team to go through an early adjustment period.

The Skyhawks started off the season on a four-game losing streak against Lehigh, Providence, Buffalo, and Fairfield. That slow start did not deter Stonehill as the Skyhawks earned its first-ever DI win with a 62-35 victory over Hartford on November 21. Stonehill head coach Trisha Brown has embraced the new opportunity and made the necessary adjustments. Brown, who started her 22nd season as Stonehill’s head coach, spoke with the NEC Overtime! Blog about the transition.

“It has been challenging to stay the least. The great part of it is how our student-athletes really got excited about the challenge and the move to Division I and our team has been phenomenal about it,” Brown said. “We knew that we were going to see a different level of athleticism, size and strength. One of the biggest changes for us was that you could be an undersized post in the NE10 and find a lot of success. Now you are facing 6-foot-2 and 6-foot-3-inch players consistently.”

This season, Stonehill adjusted to facing bigger opponents. Brown referenced her time coaching in the NE10, which was Stonehill’s DII conference. While coaching in the NE10, Brown won the conference tournament twice and reached the NCAA DII Tournament 13 times.

Along with Brown, Stonehill’s players were able to overcome the early-season adversity. Stonehill captains Emily Bramanti and Sophie Glidden reflected on the team’s difficult non-conference schedule.

“Non-conference has been a really fun challenge for us. We have used it to improve our team. We have grown over the last week-and-a-half to win games and play our best basketball,” Glidden said.

For Bramanti, she recognized how Stonehill used the non-conference schedule to come together as a collective unit.

“We have been playing as a collective five people playing on the floor. It takes 11 of us to win a game,” Bramanti said. “Recently, we have been playing collectively. We have been playing unselfish basketball.”

Bramanti and Glidden have played important roles in the team’s recent turnaround in December. The two captains joined the program in 2018 and decided to return to Stonehill for a fifth season in 2022. Brown described Bramanti and Glidden as “coach’s dream” over the last five years.

In December, Stonehill went 2-1 to begin the month with wins over New Hampshire and Bryant.

In the win over Bryant, Stonehill benefited from Bramanti’s 38-point performance, which earned her NEC Co-Player of the Week honors on December 12.

Following a last-second, one-point setback against defending America East champion Albany on December 14, Stonehill’s final two games of the non-conference schedule will be against Northeastern, and Queens (NY).

With conference play set to begin in early January, the Skyhawks’ confidence is growing.

Glidden and Bramanti recalled Merrimack’s recent elevation to the DI ranks and their hope is for Stonehill to enjoy a similar level of success during its transition. The Warriors finished 13-5 in their inaugural NEC campaign back in 2019-20 after competing in the NE10 as a DII program for 35 years.

Brown sought input from several NEC coaches about the conference after the membership announcement last spring.

Merrimack head coach Kelly Morrone and St. Francis Brooklyn head coach Linda Cimino were the first to welcome her and Stonehill to the conference. Brown said that Morrone gave her welcome advice on the transition from coaching in the NE10 to the NEC.

In looking to set the tone for the program’s time in the NEC, Brown mentioned the program’s goals for this season.

Photo by Brian Foley for Foley-Photography.com.

“We have one goal this year. That goal is our success isn’t going to be determined by wins and losses. Our success is going to be determined by improvement. Every day we are looking to get better in practice. Staying focused on the process is the most important thing for us.”

Stonehill will begin NEC play at Central Connecticut on Monday, January 2, 2023.

Breaking Down the NEC’s Most Exciting Newcomers

FDU’s Heru Bligen (Photo: Larry Levanti)

We knew going into the 2022-23 campaign that there would be plenty of unknown commodities taking the Northeast Conference by storm. With so many impactful seniors graduating last spring, the conference was rife with opportunities to shine, and several players have taken full advantage. Before I get into my favorite newcomers I’ve gotten to watch, I’d like to share Bart Torvik’s list of top players in his PORPAGATU! category. As a refresher, PORPAGATU! stands for Points Over Replacement Per Adjusted Game At That Usage and is a measure that illustrates how much better (or worse) a particular player is versus a replacement player. I consider it a solid indicator for who’s playing at a high level. Here’s the NEC PORPAGATU! leaderboard as of December 1:

There are some notable names that we expected to be here like Josh Cohen, Nico Galette and Ziggy Reid. Some returnees such as Joey Reilly, Ansley Almonor and Davonte Sweatman have surprised and improved substantially in year two. And several others weren’t part of a NEC roster last season, hence this post. I’m here to highlight a few newcomers that have been terrific in their first month as a Northeast Conference student-athlete. 

Heru Bligen, Fairleigh Dickinson

I bestowed lots of preseason hype on Tobin Anderson’s group of St. Thomas Aquinas newcomers, and rightfully so given how well Demetre Roberts and Grant Singleton have played in November. But never once did I mention junior college transfer Heru Bligen when explaining why FDU would be a darkhorse NEC contender. My bad.

Through nine games, not only is Bligen among four Knights in Bart Torvik’s top 10 of PORPAGATU!, he’s actually the team’s most efficient player thanks to a pristine 67.2% conversion rate inside the arc while committing just 10 turnovers. Bligen, who came from Garden City Community College and had a myriad of DI options this offseason, isn’t your typical 6’2” guard. That much is evident when witnessing the slasher’s blend of toughness, strength and creativity in getting to the rim. Opponents know Bligen won’t attempt a long jumper, and yet, they can’t stop him despite playing a few steps off. Here are some examples:

It’s a small sample, but the advanced metrics aren’t illustrating a weakness in Bligen’s offensive repertoire, as he’s made 65.0% of his near-the-rim takes and 70.4% of his mid-range 2s, while spreading out that efficiency well both in the half-court and in transition. He also leads the team, despite his guard-like size, with 10 putbacks and a 12.6% offensive rebounding rate, the latter metric is top 125 in all of Division I. The aggressive, proficient approach on the backboards, as well as his ability to cut off-the-ball, has allowed Anderson to implement four guard sets given Bligen’s skill set as a “small-ball 4” alongside more ball dominant players in Roberts and Singleton.

Are there any historical comps within the NEC that compare to the unique offensive profile of Bligen? If you’re going off size and athleticism, former St. Francis Brooklyn guard Unique McLean is the only one who comes to my mind over the past decade, and yet there are differences in their respective profiles. These types of tough, slashing guards may be more plentiful in Division 2, yet Bligen is a rare bird we should all enjoy in Anderson’s system at FDU. 

Landon Moore, Saint Francis University

There weren’t many holes Rob Krimmel needed to fill with a veteran-laden roster returning to Loretto, but point guard surely was one of them after the graduation of Ramiir Dixon-Conover. Krimmel was cognizant of this, procuring the commitments of Landon Moore and Cam Gregory for this 2022-23 class, as well as retaining veteran backup Zahree Harrison. In other words, Krimmel had 3 shots to fill the void in finding a competent playmaker next to Maxwell Land, Ronell Giles and Josh Cohen.

In the early going, Moore has seamlessly stepped in as the primary floor general, logging 80% of the Red Flash’s minutes, the 10th best mark among NEC players. The freshman’s ability to play under control without getting sped up has been notable given his jump from Western Prep Academy to Division I competition. How many rookies would have the patience here to find a paint bucket just seven games into their collegiate career?

You’d be hard pressed to find a freshman point that has reached double figures in scoring in 6 of his first 7 Division I contests as Moore has. Furthermore, his assist rate of 22.4% is third best in the league thus far, but perhaps more eye opening has been his 12.4% turnover rate and assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.3. Those marks are atypical for rookies. 

Additionally, Moore’s versatility has stood out in several ways. Per Hoop Math, his type of assists are well distributed with 42% of his helpers leading to a basket near the rim, 27% to a 2-point jumper and 31% to a made 3-pointer. Not only has he done well getting the ball to different areas of the floor, he’s also thrived in transition as well, posting an effective field goal percentage of 70.0% in those open floor opportunities. Despite missing Giles due to a sprained ankle for much of November, Saint Francis has posted a 58.7% eFG rate in transition, its best mark since 2017-18 thanks in large part to Moore’s efficiency in these up-tempo situations. 

Once Giles and Myles Thompson are healthy, the Red Flash should be in good shape with Moore manning the point. Krimmel should possess a very solid 8-man rotation to deploy in league play if his team can get to full strength.

Brandon Brown, Wagner

In terms of sheer volume, Brown’s numbers aren’t going to overwhelm you. He’s not a volume scorer, nor is he someone who’ll take over a game by being ball dominant. His current possession rate through six games is 13.6%, the ninth highest usage rate of any Seahawk playing at least 20% of the team’s minutes. And yet, Brown’s insertion into Wagner’s rotation was an offseason coup for new head coach Donald Copeland, given his penchant to stay within himself and serve as the ultimate glue guy. 

As a 6’5”, 190 pound power forward, Brown doesn’t project as a rugged presence, yet his proclivity to attack the glass (23.5% defensive rebounding rate, 122nd in D1) and give Wagner an off-the-bounce mismatch problem has gelled incredibly well with the team’s group of perimeter playmakers. Take Brown’s 14-point, 12-rebound and 3-steal masterpiece in a dominant win over Fairfield as an example. Brown routinely torched Fairfield’s slower-footed defenders off the dribble in the first half, reeked havoc by getting 3 steals defensively AND hit 2 of 4 from deep. It’s that kind of intuitiveness and athleticism that has helped Wagner get over the graduation of all-league stud Elijah Ford. Per Hoop Explorer, Wagner is +6.7 points per 100 possessions on offense and +27.4 points per 100 possessions on defense when Brown is on the floor. Those are incredible splits!

And when you can make tough baskets in transition, like this one late at NJIT, you know Brown is undoubtedly someone who doesn’t shy away from pressure situations. 

When it’s all said and done, Brown may only be the fourth or fifth leading scorer on Wagner, but his impact on the program’s championship prospects is enormous. If you need a slasher, he’ll provide that. A guy who can make open 3s? Sure. A rugged rebounder and willing defender who’ll embrace Copeland’s defense first identity? Absolutely. In a way, Brown is the straw that stirs Wagner’s drink.

Isaiah Burnett, Stonehill

You can make the rational argument that Burnett, now a fifth year senior in his third year of eligibility, was solely responsible for Stonehill’s two Division I victories over Army and Holy Cross. In the pair of narrow triumphs, the shifty guard scored 49 points, procured 7 steals and shot 14 of 17 (82.4%) on his 2s and 21 of 25 (84%) from the charity stripe. The Army performance was the main reason for Burnett’s well deserved selection as a NEC Co-Player of the Week.

Like Bligen, Burnett is one of those guards who’ll gladly leverage his quickness and ability to get downhill to generate offense for Chris Kraus’ group. Per Hoop Math, Burnett has attempted 59% of his attempts at the rim, converting 68% of them. Just 8% of those near-the-rim makes were assisted, illustrating his strength of blowing by defenders. Take Quinnipiac for example!

Defensively, Burnett is surely unique within the Skyhawks system, as he’s the only player with a steal rate north of 2.2%. His rate of 4.6% is the best mark among NEC players and is 60th nationally. That’s critical for a team with a middling defensive turnover rate of 18.6%.

Overall, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better two-way wing in the NEC than Burnett.

A Knight’s Tale: Reflecting On The Golden Era of FDU Women’s Hoops 

By Craig D’Amico

Back in 1988-89, Dr. Sharon Beverly took over as the head coach for the Fairleigh Dickinson women’s basketball program. Little did she know what would follow soon thereafter.

Following a first year in Hackensack that featured a one-point upset win over Marist in the NEC Tournament, Beverly brought in her first recruiting class that offseason.

Her “Fab Five” class of Rita Bernert, Meaghan Culkin, Felicia Griffin, Trina Ricketts and Donna Schules would go on to be the core of one of the first dynasties in the Northeast Conference.

In 1989-90, the young Knights would go 9-7 in conference play during the regular season, before stunning the league by upsetting Marist and Mount St. Mary’s to win the program’s first ever NEC Tournament title.  

Sue Steele

“That 1990 year, we came from a three-seed, and we were playing Marist, the two seed,” recalled Dr. Beverly. “We were supposed to be there, get our butts kicked and go back home. I remember we were down at half, and I will never forget. We came out of halftime and Felicia (Griffin) stole the ball three times right out of the half, and we never looked back.”

Fresh off capturing the crown, and with the core of their championship team returning as sophomores in 1990-91, there was much optimism in Hackensack about a repeat. However, it was not to be.

“They were all young and thinking, ‘We’re all back, this will be a piece of cake.’ It was not a piece of cake,” Dr. Beverly remembered.

The Knights went 11-16 (8-8) and finished in seventh place, one game out of a playoff spot.

“We realized that we had the same team, but everyone else was getting better, so we just couldn’t relax and it’s just not going to automatically happen,” said Griffin. “We had to go back and put in that extra hard work and rely on each other as teammates.”

So the Knights went into the offseason prior to the 1991-92 campaign motivated to put their underperforming title defense year behind them and reclaim their spot at the top of the NEC.

“Oh yeah, we were motivated. We were motivated from the last game of that 1991 season until we got back on the court in October,” said Culkin. “I felt like we came back in 1991-92 ready to play from day one.”

The Knights burst out to a 6-0 start in non-conference play, highlighted by a landmark victory against Seton Hall.

“A key moment in our season was our win in non-conference over Seton Hall,” said Dr. Beverly. “We went to the free throw line and had to sink two free throws to win that game. We had never beaten Seton Hall. We hadn’t even come close. But there was never a doubt we were going to make those free throws, and when we made them, I just stood there and looked around and said to myself. ‘I’m going to take this all in for a minute.’ It was an amazing game for us, and a key moment for our team and our season. I was so proud of them.” 

Dr. Sharon Beverly

“We had confidence going into conference play,” said Culkin, “and that Seton Hall game definitely gave us that confidence.”

In conference play, the Knights started 7-0, including wins against rivals Marist, Mount St. Mary’s and Monmouth. However, FDU would stumble in midseason, dropping two out of three, with a five-point loss at Robert Morris followed by a heartbreaking three-point setback at Mount.

Going into the final game of the regular season, the league’s regular season title was still up for grabs. Mount stood at 14-1, and FDU was a game back at 13-2. But a slim 60-59 setback to Saint Francis U, denied the Knights a shot at a regular season crown, and sealed their fate as the tournament’s No. 2 seed. For the Knights, the road to the 1992 title would have to go through Emmitsburg, MD.

The Knights would get past LIU in the semifinals, 69-57, to set up a championship rematch with the Mount. However, their run to the final did not come without adversity.

“In the last game before Mount, Trina (Ricketts), who was one of the leaders in the conference in blocked shots, rebounds, you name it, she breaks her ankle. So we had to go into a championship game with no center. We typically started three guards, but in that championship game we started four guards,” said Beverly.

In 1992, Mount St. Mary’s was in just its third year in the NEC. The Mount had won three straight regular season titles but had fallen short of a championship in each of their prior two tournament appearances. Bill Sheehan’s roster was loaded with talent, including future NEC Hall of Fame inductees Vanessa Blair and Suzie Rowlyk. Entering the tournament’s culminating clash, the Mount were sitting at 23-4 (15-1), with the Knights having handed the Mount their lone NEC defeat.

With both programs looking to establish themselves during the league’s infancy, and now meeting in the championship game for the second time in three years, the Mount/FDU rivalry quickly became the biggest rivalry in the NEC.

Donna Schules

“The Mount/FDU rivalry had such competitive games,” mentioned Blair. “When we were about to play FDU, it was one of those games we couldn’t sleep the night before because we were looking so forward to playing them. It was one of those games we always had circled on our calendar.”

“Mount had such a confidence about them, and they had such an outstanding team,” said Beverly. “What helped us actually was our win in that first championship (in 1990). So in the next championship (in 1992), we had that confidence, and our kids knew they could beat them.”

Without Rickets in the lineup, the Knights started sophomore Christine Bachmann in the post, matched up against Blair, the two-time NEC Player of the Year.

“I think of Christine who had to play center and she looked at me like, ‘I’m going to play Vanessa Blair, at 5’11?’” said Beverly. “But in my mind, I’m saying, ‘I have to figure out a strategy for how to beat them because we came too far. We can’t have this team not win this championship. They are too talented not to do this.’”

The Knights’ strategy in the 1992 final was to use their four-guard lineup to their advantage, to run the Mount out of the gym.

And it worked.

“They weren’t prepared for it. We were never going to stop running,” said Beverly. “We pressed them baseline to baseline, crashed the boards, and we just played with a lot of heart.”

“We were so well conditioned,” recalled Culkin. “We ran everyone into the ground. We played full court defense, non-stop. We were just so focused and determined to win. We were winning in our head before we even stepped on the court. We had the confidence. I remember Coach’s line…’If they can’t score 60, they can’t win.’”  

In the 1992 final, Mount wouldn’t reach 60 points, and they wouldn’t win. As the final seconds ticked off the clock, FDU had reclaimed its throne, upsetting the mighty Mount, 78-55. Juniors Griffin and Bernert were named to the All-Tournament team, and freshman Barbara DeShields was honored as the 1992 NEC Tournament MVP.

Rita Bernert

“Barbara DeShields wasn’t having it. She was not going to be denied in that championship game,” said Blair.

The 1992 FDU squad finished with a program record 23 wins and its second tournament title in three seasons. Following the championship game, while the Knights celebration was underway on their team bus as they awaited their return trip to the Garden State, an unexpected visitor interrupted the party.

“The game is over and we’re partying on the bus,” said Beverly. “All of a sudden we look up and Vanessa Blair is standing there. I look up and she says, ‘Coach Beverly, I just wanted to congratulate you all. You have such a phenomenal team.’”

“I have great respect for Coach Beverly,” said Blair. “At the end of the day, the best team won.”  

The core group of Knights did return in 1992-93 for their senior season to try and defend their title. FDU went 14-4 to earn a share of their program’s first ever regular season championship, and clinched the tournament’s #1 seed. However, the Knights were upset on their home court by Marist in the semis, prematurely ending their season.

“We thought we should have won that one too in 1993. That was pretty rough. As a senior, you want to go out on a high note, and we didn’t. That would’ve been the cherry on top,” said Griffin.

In 2008, 16 years after cutting down the nets, the entire 1992 NEC championship team was honored with induction into the Fairleigh Dickinson Hall of Fame.

“There were five of us that came in together as freshman. Us five, all the way until graduation, we gelled together well because we were Coach Beverly’s first recruits,” said Griffin. “We learned how to play together as a team.”

On February 5, 2022, the Knights celebrated the 30th anniversary of their 1992 title team at the Rothman Center prior to their game against CCSU.

Presently under the direction of head coach Angelika Szumilo, the Knights are enjoying their winningest three year stretch in conference play since those teams of the early ‘90’s. The 2022 Knights can only hope that their current run includes the taste of a championship and the memories of a lifetime that their predecessors collected from 30 years prior.

 “They were a special group,” said Dr. Beverly. “As a coach, you go out and recruit, and you have a vision for what it is going to take to win. When you have an opportunity to coach a group like I had the opportunity to coach, that doesn’t come often.”

Devil in the Details: Two Decades Later, CCSU Legends Recall The Making Of A Champion

By Ryan Peters

The 2000-01 season wasn’t supposed to end like this for Howie Dickenman’s Central Connecticut program. Coming off a three-game losing streak to conclude the regular season, the Blue Devil players were now slogging their way through an arduous NEC tournament quarterfinal matchup versus UMBC, and things continued to worsen.

Without senior point guard Dean Walker, freshman upstart Ricardo Scott and guard Lee Guinn – arguably three of the team’s top six players – for the playoff contest, the Blue Devils failed to generate anything offensively without a viable ball handler on the active roster. Reserve guard Harvey Van Stein admirably tried to fill in as the floor general for the injured Walker, but a bevy of turnovers made it practically impossible to get into a rhythm offensively.

It didn’t matter that UMBC was shooting just 25 percent for the contest, which was well below a Dickenman goal of holding teams under 36 percent shooting. Nor was it a factor that Corsley Edwards, the team’s star center, was putting together another quality performance against a program that was right down the road from his hometown in Baltimore. Central Connecticut simply struggled to keep it competitive that day at Sovereign Bank Arena in Trenton, New Jersey.

Battered, mentally fraught and exhausted – much of the team stayed up the night before playing video games in the hotel – the Blue Devils committed 25 turnovers against a paltry three assists, shot 36 percent from the floor and made just one triple out of eight attempts.

UMBC defeated the floundering Blue Devils, 59-44, in the first round of the NEC tournament, sending home a squad that had taken Iowa State, the number 2-seed in the Midwest bracket, to the brink of defeat in the 2000 NCAA tournament just 12 months earlier. An event that once seemed improbable for an emerging program, was suddenly a reality.

It was a brutal way for senior forward John Tice to end his collegiate career after dealing with a debilitating case of plantar fasciitis for much of the season, but perhaps it was a necessary step in retrospect.

“The loss was sad for the seniors of the program, but great for the returning guys,” then assistant coach Anthony Latina, now the Sacred Heart head coach, said of the humbling moment. “It was a good reminder that nothing’s guaranteed. You have to come ready to play.”

Edwards was sick to his stomach. The then-junior had dealt with various ailments himself throughout the disjointed campaign, and without consistent practices had let his weight balloon. He knew something had to change, especially after the team was embarrassed by a UMBC program that the Blue Devils had taken for granted.

“It was definitely deflating and that’s what motivated us for the next year, because I got on a lot of guys,” Corsley recalled. “I said ‘(all of you) returning, this is where we need to be at, I need you guys to step up.’”

After declaring for the NBA draft that summer to solicit the opinions of professional scouts, Edwards returned to CCSU humbled by the feedback. He needed to enhance his fitness, and Dickenman challenged his leadership skills upon his return to campus. As someone who experienced the ultimate high of winning a NEC championship in 2000, he was cognizant of what needed to be done.

“My conditioning definitely improved,” Edwards said of that critical offseason, which consisted of daily workouts that incorporated running, lifting and the stairmaster at 30-minute intervals, starting at 5 AM every morning.

“I think he matured,” Dickenman said of that offseason with respect to Edwards. “Frontcourt players I think take a little more time to mature as players and people, for whatever the reason, than perimeter players.”

In a way, it was an about face for the 6-foot-8 Baltimore native who came to Central Connecticut as an out-of-shape, yet highly talented recruit. Then a 325-pound senior in high school, Dickenman came down to the Edwards household to make a recruiting pitch to the athletic post presence who would eventually become a pivotal figure in the program’s revival.

“He came and sat in my mother and father’s house and said ‘Oh yeah, word on the street is you’re soft.’” Edwards recollected with a chuckle. “I think the challenge is what got me, no other coach (was) telling me what I needed to hear.”

In the midst of Dickenman’s brutally candid criticism, he asked Edwards to stand up in the middle of the room. Dickenman walked over to him, standing toe-to-toe with the recruit. “So I walked up to his chest and I hit him with an elbow real hard, and I said ‘that’s what you have to do when someone cuts across the lane, you need to say hello. And the reason you need to say hello is to make sure they don’t cut through the lane anymore.’”

The bold presentation paid off, as Edwards and his father loved Dickenman’s sincerity. Soon thereafter, despite receiving interest from several other Division I institutions, Edwards signed his letter of intent to play at Central Connecticut. Now more than four years after that moment, Edwards was maturing into the senior leader Dickenman needed him to be.

Others needed to step up as well, especially with the graduations of Tice, Walker and Guinn. Soon-to-be sophomores Ricardo Scott, Damian Battles and Ron Robinson were the next men up, so to speak. Robinson wasn’t ever one to back down from a challenge, as his personality mirrored that of Dickenman’s. It’s what drew the Bronx native to the Nutmeg State school in the first place.

“It’s crazy, because we had totally different upbringings at two totally different places in our lives and we definitely had the same personality when it came to basketball,” Robinson said of his similarities with his college coach. “It was like, ‘I’m going to go through you to get this rebound’ or ‘I’m going to do what I need to do.’ It was a no friends type of deal on the court, just a real toughness mentality.”

As someone who initially made his impact felt as a hard-nosed rebounder, Robinson rose to the challenge that summer to expand his game. Others followed suit as well, including Battles who had averaged just 5.7 points per game as a rookie.

“We had a really good offseason,” Latina said. “Damian really got a lot better. Ron Robinson: I know he didn’t make a first or second team all-league (in 2002), but I’m telling you right now there’s no way there were 10 players better than Ron Robinson.”

Then assistant coach Pat Sellers, now running his own program at CCSU as the 11th head coach in its storied history, believed the frontcourt partnership between Robinson and Edwards is what made the Blue Devils so good that season.

“Ron Robinson gave us a different look because he was such a tough guy,” Sellers, himself a former player and graduate of CCSU, said. “Corsley Edwards was an NBA level guy and Ron was key because he took Coach D’s personality.”

With an imposing frontline of Edwards and Robinson in place, perimeter players such as the silky-smooth Scott and the tough-as-nails Battles had more freedom to be aggressive and physical on the perimeter defensively. The only thing missing was an accomplished point guard. Enter junior college transfer John Alexander.

“He was a vital addition to a team that really lacked (a true point guard) the year before,” Latina said of the fearless 5-foot-10 guard from Quantico, Virginia. “John took a lot of the ball handling pressure off all the other perimeter players. Damian and Ricardo could really focus on finishing plays and scoring.”

With the starting roster in place, the Blue Devils got off to a fast start after a lopsided defeat in the season opener at Oklahoma. The team then rattled off four straight non-conference wins – all won by at least two possessions – heading into their Northeast Conference opener versus St. Francis Brooklyn. That’s when the first bit, and perhaps only bit, of adversity hit the Blue Devils during the regular season.

The memory is vivid in Dickenman’s mind even 20 years later. “St. Francis Brooklyn had a player named Bronski Dockery who was 7 of 7 from three, and as I remember correctly, he was well guarded and he was two steps behind the arc,” he said of that humbling home defeat in front of 2,120 fans.

The lights-out shooting performance by the Terriers at Detrick Gymnasium – they shot a remarkable 14 of 25 from deep and scored 1.21 points per possession – opened the floodgates for pessimistic feelings after the final buzzer sounded with the Terriers victorious, 82-69.

“I said to my staff, ‘it’s going to be a challenge to finish in the upper half of the league to earn a home game in the NEC tournament,’” Dickeman said. “Then we went the rest of the (Northeast Conference) season and we didn’t lose a game!”

After a few more out-of-conference losses, mainly from guarantee games, the Blue Devils embarked on one of the most impressive stretches any Northeast Conference program has ever been a part of. They won 19 straight league games to earn the program its second regular season title in three seasons.

There may not have been much adversity between the lines on game day, yet according to then assistant coach Chris Casey, the unforgiving practices that Dickenman engineered did plenty to toughen up the talented roster.

“Coach D did a great job of making practice intense every day and getting after guys to be better every day,” Casey, once the Niagara head coach and now a Fairfield assistant coach, said. “He made sure you got after it every day, that in itself maybe creates a little adversity, because it challenges guys.”

The three to four-hour practices incorporated a lot of one-on-one defensive and shell drills and undoubtedly built character. The strenuous efforts served as a great motivator to uphold a passion of Dickenman’s from day one: play hard-nosed, suffocating defense without fouling.

“A lot of the (practice) stuff, I don’t think you could do now,” Sellers said with a laugh when recalling the impossibly long practice sessions. Some of those laborious challenges included getting into various defensive stances while holding bricks, an old tactic used by Dickenman’s coach back when he played at CCSU, Bill Detrick. The mere memory of those taped up bricks is something that makes former players wince to this day.

“The bricks you didn’t want to do; that usually came with bad defensive outings.” Robinson said. “It works, it’s very effective because you don’t forget that… you don’t want to do the bricks so you make sure you do what you need to do while you’re out there.”

Other tactics, which involved Dickenman keeping his players on their toes, were effective at getting the message across as well. One time, the surly coach wasn’t pleased with his center after a lackluster 20 minutes, and he needed to get his point across in the locker room at halftime.

“Howie was like ‘Big Dog, Big Dog’ when he’s walking back and forth in front of the (white) board,” Edwards, who was affectionately known as ‘Big Dog’ to his teammates, recalled of the moment that inevitably made him upset and inspired a better second half. “He wrote on the board ‘Little Puppy’ and then said, ‘That’s what you’re doing today.’”

No matter the tactics, the defensive improvement was substantial. CCSU gave up just 63.1 points per game for the 2001-02 season, a stark improvement after allowing 71.8 points per game the season prior. Even more impressive was the Blue Devils possessed the third best defensive foul rate in all of Division I basketball, leading to CCSU making more free throws (513) than their opponents even attempted (464) at the charity stripe for the entirety of the season.

Despite the defensive dominance and the shiny 19-1 mark in NEC play, there still was the pesky single-elimination tournament the Blue Devils had to get through if they wanted to participate in the Big Dance. It was always a challenge to come out on top in a one game format, especially with a target on your back.

“When Central Connecticut came to town, (the opponent) put their best foot forward, so we got everybody’s best look,” Robinson said.

Case in points: eighth-seeded Sacred Heart led Central Connecticut late in the first half of the NEC tournament quarterfinals before a Blue Devils mid-game spurt eventually put the upset minded Pioneers away. The five Blue Devil starters combined to score 61 of the team’s 65 points in a workmanlike 65-54 victory.

The following day, the perimeter savvy St. Francis Brooklyn team once again gave the Blue Devils all they could handle. This time around, the defense locked in on the Terriers’ shooters, holding Ron Ganulin’s club to 7 of 19 from deep while out-rebounding them by nine. Timely double-doubles from Robinson (10 points, 15 rebounds) and Scott (11 points, 12 rebounds) allowed CCSU to survive the nailbiter.

All that stood between the program’s next NCAA tournament appearance was Quinnipiac, a team the Blue Devils handled two times earlier in the regular season. Game number three was to be played at Detrick Gymnasium, giving CCSU a decided advantage against their in-state rival. The Blue Devils fans, who were in line as early as 4 AM the day of the game to get tickets, packed Detrick to a capacity not ever seen before. 

“We are downstairs in our offices while the teams are getting ready to play, and you could hear the bleachers getting beat up by everyone’s feet,” Dickenman said of the unforgettable environment that night. “I never heard that before – and you could feel a little bit of shake downstairs as to what was going on upstairs.”

To the visiting Bobcats credit, they hung around for the entire game despite the raucous atmosphere thanks to timely three-point shooting in the first half by guard Jared Grasso and reliable interior play from Jeremy Bishop (14 points, 12 rebounds) and Bill Romano (16 points, 8 of 12 shooting). Head coach Joe DeSantis even admits to this day that his first half technical was on purpose, to send a message that the Bobcats weren’t going to lie down to the regular season champions.

In the end, however, the steady guard play of Battles (27 points) and Alexander (14 points, 4 assists), along with Robinson’s tenaciousness around the rim (13 points, 10 rebounds) was too much for Quinnipiac to overcome. Edwards dunk in the closing seconds sealed a NEC Tournament championship that created a sudden rush of crazed Blue Devils students onto the floor.

“That was one of the beautiful feelings ever,” Edwards said of one of the most fond memories of his playing career. “I dunked the ball; I got all these chills just knowing these fans were going to rush the floor at the time.”

Later that weekend, Central Connecticut got the news – they would be traveling to Pittsburgh to take on the 2-seeded Pitt Panthers led by Jamie Dixon. The 15-seed seemed about right, but getting sent to essentially a road game in the first round of the NCAA tournament was a raw deal.

“I needed something to motivate the team, so I said ‘we’re going to take on the whole city of Pittsburgh,” Dickenman recalled when asked how he motivated his players for the moment.

In the early going, the Blue Devils hung around with Battles playing his best basketball. The guard, who finished with 15 points, 5 rebounds and 6 assists, teamed up with Edwards (16 points, 5 rebounds, 5 of 8 shooting) to keep Central Connecticut competitive at Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh. The Blue Devils trailed by only four points at the break.

In the end, though, the Panthers stout backcourt of Brandin Knight and Julius Page were too much to handle in the home environment. A Page dunk midway through the second half capped off a Pitt run that inevitably doomed Dickenman’s squad and sent them packing.

As the team licked their wounds heading back home at the airport, Dickenman was visited by a surprise guest, Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher. “He was in line getting an airline ticket and we were going through security,” Dickenman said. “He came over to me, went out of his way and said, ‘I just wanted to say I appreciated how hard your team played.’”

Cowher’s compliment capped off a magical run for Central Connecticut in a season that’ll forever be known as one of the best teams to ever lead the Northeast Conference. More importantly than that were the lives Dickenman impacted off the court, namely Robinson and Edwards. Those imprints last forever.

“To this day, Coach means a whole lot to me beyond basketball. He’s done so much for me,” Robinson said.

Edwards wholeheartedly agreed. “(Coach Dickenman) dedicated himself to me and I appreciate everything.”