February 14, 2008 11:08 am ET by Kyle Whelliston
Sacred Heart at Wagner (Northeast)
Spiro Sports Center - Staten Island, NY
7:00 PM EST
We love us some NEC, and we have a fantastic game tonight between first place Sacred Heart (11-2) and second-place Wagner (10-2), two squads in a virtual loss-column heat. Both teams have already locked up bids in an eight-team conference tourney for an 11-team league (my goodness, we're talking like that already), and folks with satellite dishes and the DirecTV Sports Pack will be able to witness the battle for themselves on MSG. Then they'll be able to see the 60-minute boildown any time they want on Friday afternoon with the constant repeats, but that's just how MSG rolls.
Wagner won the first meeting up in Connecticut 70-63, but that was an eternity ago on Jan. 5. Sacred Heart, picked by many (including us) to survive the Northeast Conference, has been unstoppable in February, winning eight straight games to jump to the top of the NEC. This year's Pioneers are a sort of mini-Drake, if you will. After the graduation losses of some high-output scorers, this year's version has three main producers who rarely reach the teens. Not the best rebounding or shooting team, but SHU shares the ball extremely well, and is stingy with the basketball, averaging just 13 turnovers per contest. Sophomore guard Chauncey Hardy, who impressed as a freshman with his double-figure scoring, has improved his consistency, and has led the team in scoring in Heart's most recent two wins against Saint Francis (NY) and Monmouth.
While many writers were obsessed with Seahawks head coach Mike Deane's goofy seatbelt chair (which he's put away since a few weeks ago), they might have missed the story of Wagner captain Jamal Smith, who collapsed in practice three years ago and was diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, the same condition that claimed Hank Gathers' life and befell our good friend, VMI head coach Duggar Baucom. After a long and difficult recovery (Smith is claustrophobic and didn't take to the MRI machine that well), he's back and producing. Now a junior, he's scoring 11.3 ppg and is a key cog in a formidable starting lineup that boasts five 750-point career scorers. All that experience is paying off, with a strong record and two straight overtime wins at Mount Saint Mary's and Quinnipiac. This team is winning with heart (literally) and poise, and doesn't need gimmicks to get attention. Give them a look.
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