Queens men earn at-large invite to NCAA Tourney

After such a solid four-year career with the Knights,…

By Dylan Butler

Steve Sikiric hoped and prayed that Queens College’s 94-89 overtime loss to New York Tech in the New York Collegiate Athletic Conference quarterfinals last week would not be his last collegiate game.

After such a solid four-year career with the Knights, the last thing the Maspeth native wanted for his final memories was his team blowing a 19-point second half lead. All he could do was wait by the phone and hope the Knights’ seemingly slim tournament hopes panned out.

Sunday night Sikiric got the phone call and his second chance as Queens College garnered one of 28 at-large bids in the 48-team NCAA Division II tournament field. It was the school’s first men’s basketball tournament bid.

“I didn’t think we had a chance,” Sikiric said. “After three years of losing we finally have our chance. We have to be ready, we have to make the most out of our second chance.”

Queens College (17-10) garnered the sixth-seed in the Northeast region, one of eight sites nationwide. The Knights face third-seeded University of Massachusetts-Lowell Thursday at 5:30 p.m. at SUNY-Old Westbury. The winner takes on No. 2 St. Michael’s, the Northeast-10 Conference champions.

NYCAC champ and the No. 1 team in the nation Adelphi (29-0) is the top seed and gets a first-round bye, as does No. 2 St. Michael’s (26-3). NYCAC runner-up Philadelphia University (23-6) was named the No. 4 seed and will face No. 5 St. Anselm (21-6), also from the Northeast-10 in the other first-round game Thursday at 7:30 p.m.

“After [the loss to NYIT], it definitely left a bad taste,” said sophomore guard Gary DeBerry. “It was such a shock. I didn’t think it was over, I thought there was another half. But now we have the chance to put some mouthwash in and get rid of that bad taste.”

DeBerry was at his St. Albans home Sunday night, listening to the webcast of the selection show with family and friends. After hearing Adelphi was the top-seed, he waited a few more anxious moments before hearing Queens was selected.

“Once they announced UMass-Lowell as the No. 3 seed, it seemed like it took them forever to announce the sixth seed,” DeBerry said. “But once they announced it, the house erupted.”

After the loss to New York Tech, Queens College coach Kyrk Peponakis also thought his team’s chances of getting an NCAA tournament bid had vanished. At least there was the ECAC tournament, he thought.

“This is probably the best thing that has happened around here in a long time,” said a jubilant Peponakis Sunday night. “I think I’m going to go out with my wife and play Lotto tonight. Maybe another miracle can happen to us.”

In a conference call Sunday after the selections were announced, selection committee chairman Don Landry said six criteria were used to pick the at-large teams.

“Overall win-loss record, head-to-head competition, results vs. common opponents, Division II win-loss record within region, strength of schedule index, and eligibility and availability for championship competition,” Landry said.

Unlike the Division I tournament, which selects teams on a national level, teams are picked to the Division II tournament solely on a regional basis. Queens College was ranked sixth in the Northeast region for 10 consecutive weeks.

According to sources, the Knights eked out the final spot over Bentley from the Northeast-10 Conference. The College of St. Rose was also in consideration, but bowed out early.

“We know a lot of teams would like this chance,” Peponakis said. “This is great for the guys. They will take it all in and hopefully the Tech loss will help us. It can’t be our last taste of the season.”

UMass-Lowell (23-6) is ranked No. 25 in the country and is coming off a 75-64 loss to St. Michael’s in the Northeast-10 championship game Saturday. The River Hawks set a school record for wins in a regular season with 21 and have won 17 of their last 19 games, including a school-record 13 straight.

Ninth-year head coach Gary Manchel has preached defense and UMass-Lowell has responded. The River Hawks lead the nation in defense, allowing an average of 59.2 points per game. Offensively, UMass-Lowell, a team with six international players, is led by a pair of freshmen from Israel. Uri Grunwald (14.5 points per game) and Elad Inbar (13.2 points per game) lead the River Hawks in scoring. Both players are dangerous from beyond the arc, each shooting better than 40 percent.

The Queens College men’s team isn’t the only basketball team in the school playing post-season basketball. The women’s team, which also fell in the NYCAC quarters, a 63-52 decision at Dowling, has been invited to play in the ECAC tournament at Binghamton. The Lady Knights (15-12) will face conference foe Adelphi in a semifinal Saturday at 2 p.m. Binghamton takes on Dowling in the other semifinal. The championship game is scheduled for Sunday.

“I’m happy for them, especially the seniors,” said Queens women’s coach Jerry Ingenito. “It’s a good start. We’re very excited.”

Reach Associate Sports Editor Dylan Butler by e-mail at Timesledgr@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 143.