UNION, N.J (2/19/14) – The Kean University men's basketball team won a wild 77-73 Wednesday matchup with NJAC co-leader Rutgers-Newark on senior night to clinch a spot in the NJAC Tournament. Kean honored seniors Mike Burton, Xavier Fuller, Kyle Latorre and Ali Mix in a pregame ceremony, but it was sophomore Tom Soulias who stole the show, shooting 8-of-9 from three-point land in the game for 26 points. Mix finished with 24, including a pair of huge three pointers himself.
As the game began, Newark raced out to an 8-0 lead. Fuller scored first for Kean, and a three-pointer by Soulias (pictured left) trimmed the lead to 8-5. Soulias hit three more from downtown and Mix added a layup as the Cougars took their first lead at 16-15 on the strength of Soulias' shooting. He had 12 points in the first six minutes.
Burton got in on the action with a three-pointer of his own to keep Kean ahead momentarily, but the Cougars lost the lead over the next few minutes. Kean was shooting 70 percent from the field in the first 10 minutes, but Rutgers was hitting 83 percent from the floor. In addition, the two sides were a combined 9-for-9 from the free throw line in an impressive half-period shooting display.
Inevitably, the two teams cooled off in the later stages of the first. But both squads were still well north of 50 percent shooting when the half ended with Rutgers holding a 47-40 advantage. Soulias made his first five three-pointers of the night for 20 first-half points, while Latorre was 3-for-3 from the field with 10 points and four rebounds.
As the second half began, the Cougars earned steals on Rutgers' first three possessions and trimmed the lead down to three on a running jumper by Mix.
Soulias continued his hot streak into the second; his three and another Mix layup tied the game at 49 at the 16:08 mark as Harwood Arena erupted on the tie.
At 12:52, Mix made a free throw to give Kean its first lead in nearly 20 minutes of game time. After a Newark three, Burton got a trey of his own to fall and Soulias followed with a three-point hit from the halfcourt logo. It was his eighth bucket from downtown and forced the Raiders to call timeout.
Newark tied it on a fast-break dunk by John Snow with six minutes to go and then took a one-point lead on a three by Chris Foreman 30 seconds later.
With the shot clock running down, Mix made a wild three-pointer that shifted the lead back to Kean at 69-67, and added a pair of free throws to expand the Cougar cushion to four.
Newark cut it to one with 2:30 remaining, but Mix hit a layup to go back up three. Doze Ikwuegbu then tied it for Rutgers on a second-chance three pointer.
As the clock slipped under a minute, Mix launched a desperate three from the corner with the shot clock winding down. The crowd roared as it hit the bottom of the net to put Kean up three again, and Fuller then pulled down a huge defensive rebound with less than 35 seconds remaining.
Latorre made a free throw to put the Cougars up four, and then Kean's defense held on for the fantastic 77-73 victory. Kean exclusively used its five starters - Mix, Burton, Fuller, Latorre and Soulias – for the entire epic second half. Those five players were on the court for 191 of the possible 200 minutes of game time.
The Cougars are now 13-12 and 9-9 in the NJAC, while Rutgers-Newark is 18-7 and 14-4 in the conference.
Kean has earned the fourth seed in the NJAC Tournament and will host New Jersey City University in the opening round at 4:30 p.m. on Saturday. The Cougars swept NJCU during the regular season.