NHTI men win conference hoops title

The NHTI men's basketball team won a conference title on its home court this weekend. Cindy A Lavigne photo

The NHTI men's basketball team won a conference title on its home court this weekend. Cindy A Lavigne photo Lavigne’s Live Shots

The NHTI men's basketball team won a conference title on its home court this weekend. Cindy A Lavigne photo.

The NHTI men's basketball team won a conference title on its home court this weekend. Cindy A Lavigne photo. Lavigne’s Live Shots

Published: 03-04-2024 5:15 PM

NHTI defeated the Central Maine Community College (CMCC) Mustangs 80-78 on Sunday to win their fifth YSCC men’s basketball championship in program history. It’s also the first time the Lynx have won the championship on their home court since 2018.

On Monday, the Lynx were awarded the second seed for the United States Collegiate Athletic Association (USCAA) National Tournament. Their conference championship earned them a first-round bye in the upcoming tournament. The team will be spending spring break in Richmond, Virginia, for this season’s tournament. Next Monday they play their first game of the single-elimination playoff against an opponent to be determined.

Nothing can completely prepare a team for a national tournament, but NHTI played two drastically different opponents in their run through the YSCC championship. While the Lynx looked comfortable in the semifinal against Great Bay Community College, a team with one of the strongest offensive identities in the country, the defensive-minded Mustangs of CMCC led the Lynx by double-digits most of the championship.

Fighting fire with fire against the Great Bay Herons

Lynx men’s basketball has the highest-scoring offense in the nation among USCAA Division II programs. The Herons have the second highest scoring offense. This game was bound to be a shootout from the opening whistle. Both teams delighted the crowd by showing off a fast pace and letting the ball fly.

NHTI’s guards, Joe Cantey and Dahsan King separated the Lynx from Herons in the first half, and there was no looking back. In a 60-second span, five minutes into the game, Cantey and King splashed four-straight Lynx three-pointers. After the offensive outburst, the Lynx were able to control the game the rest of the way, and finished winning 95-78.

Championship comeback for the crown

The CMCC Mustangs have an incredible defense, and when their offense can get going, they look unstoppable. That was the case in the first half. The Mustangs owned the first half, leading the Lynx by as many as 13 points. Cantey and King, the two most trusted shooters for NHTI, could not get going. They each struggled from beyond the arch early on. With the Mustangs defense shutting them down, Lynx head coach, Irv Harris went into halftime with other answers in mind.

Dontavious Elder and Sterling Blakely would end up being those answers. Elder started the game but struggled offensively in the first half. Blakely did not start and scored no points in the first half when he did play. Everything changed in the second half when Blakely and Elder were on the court at the same time. The Lynx began to run the full-court press. It was designed where Elder would be the player who hangs back in the defensive end. The Mustangs, trapped and forced to look for long outlet passes, struggled to break free of their end of the court. Elder picked his moments beautifully, jumping into passing lanes and racking up steal after steal.

Then there was Blakely, he spent each night last week closing down the gym with the shooting machine, taking hundreds and hundreds of threes. Once he checked into the second half, he wasted no time in shooting his first three-pointer. Once it fell flush through the net the Lynx were back to within eight points, and the comeback was on. Now in his rhythm, Blakely drained four more from beyond the arc and finished the game with 17 points — all coming in the second half.

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His third three-pointer got the Lynx their first lead in 25-minutes of game time, and they held it the rest of the way. The final five seconds featured Elder coming down with an improbable rebound between the two tallest Mustangs. With the Lynx up by three, Elder was fouled immediately. Calming walking across the court to the free throw line, Elder gave his teammates on the sideline a thumbs up. He hit both free throws, and the Lynx were up by five. The Mustangs would inbound, and guard Jackson Birmingham hit a halfcourt shot.

Elder secured the championship with the biggest free throws of his life. Blakely was named the Offensive Player of the Tournament, and Elder was named the Tournament MVP.