By Monica D’Ippolito
NEW PALTZ — The atmosphere felt like a playoff game between the State University of New York at New Paltz and visiting SUNY Plattsburgh Saturday in the Hawk Center.
The two teams battled in a tight, physical game, but the Hawks (12-3 overall, 6-2 SUNYAC) kept composure and withstood a Cardinals rally down the stretch to secure a 74-73 win.
“It felt really good. I mean as basketball players we like to compete at the highest level we can, and it always feels good when the crowed is involved and everybody is competing at a high level,” said SUNY New Paltz junior guard A.J. Knight. “The physicality was definitely there, so to come out on top in a game like that is definitely a great feeling.”
The Hawks built a 10-point cushion eight minutes into the game, which ballooned to as many as 14 around the six-minute mark of the half following a made 3 by Solomon Neuhaus. A 5-0 run turned momentum toward the Cardinals, as they ignited the away crowed with back-to-back blocks to cap the surge, but Mitchell Cumings recovered the loose ball on the play and found Knight for 3 who quieted the visiting bench and brought the lead back to 10 with 2:40 left in the half.
A free throw by Jeremiah Smith cut the difference to nine, but after a stop next time down, Sean St. Lucia dove on the loose ball and forced a foul on the play and in turn SUNY New Paltz capitalized as Ethan St. Lucia answered with a made trey in the corner. Plattsburgh earned a steal and got out in transition on the ensuing Hawks offensive possession, but Ezike Ikechukwu was hit with a double technical for hanging on the rim on the transition dunk. Knight made 3-of-4 attempts to push the lead to 13.
The Cardinals trimmed the score to 38-30 following five unanswered points, but Sean St. Lucia made sure to fatten the lead back into double figures as he swished his half court buzzer beater to the backdrop of a raucous Hawk Center crowd with SUNY New Paltz entering the break, up 41-30.
“I just believe it’s important to keep composure in a time like that,” Knight said. “It’s cool to get into the game, but if it takes you out than that’s not a good thing so keeping composure is the most important part, especially when the game is at its most competitive.”
Plattsburgh got within five early into the second half, but back-to-back 3’s from Knight and Rylan Blondo re-established control. A 3-pointer by Tim Thomas cut the score to 56-50, but a great up-and-under finish at the hoop by Alex Krupinski and a driving bucket by RJ Meyers-Turner stymied the Cardinals run.
However, maybe the biggest shot of the evening came with about six minutes left, as the Cardinals trimmed the difference to six once again following a steal and finish in transition by Plattsburgh. The Hawks worked the ball around with Sean St. Lucia finding Knight out on the perimeter who calmly sank what felt like the game-sealing triple to deflate the visitors momentum.
“To me, I felt like that was a big shot,” Knight said. “That’s the reason why I came to this school is to help the team get over the hump and hit big shots myself…. It seemed like we were stalling out at one point but hitting that shot definitely was a crucial turning point.”
SUNY New Paltz kept Plattsburgh at bay from there. The Cardinals hit on a 3-pointer to get within six again with six-minutes left leading to a timeout and brought the score down to 71-67 with about 40 seconds remaining. The Hawks struggled answering offensively, but as time winded down Plattsburgh was forced to foul to stop the clock. Krupinski was sent to the line and made two crucial free throws to bring the lead back up to six.
Kevin Tabb connected from 3 for Plattsburgh to cut the score to 73-70, but SUNY New Paltz anchored down defensively to hold on for the win with Blondo making one last free throw to ice it in the final seconds.
Knight led the way for the Hawks, as he finished with a game-high 19 points on 6-for-9 shooting from the floor, including 4-for-6 from 3-point range with three rebounds, three assists and a steal.
Knight, since posting a career-high 30 points against his former team in Fredonia State last weekend, has been SUNY New Paltz’s most prolific scorer averaging 17.5 points in the last four games, while shooting 56 percent and on Saturday came up with clutch shots to lead the way in the one-point win.
“I definitely agree. After that Fredonia game it definitely opened my eyes to what I am capable of doing,” Knight said.
Krupinski followed Knight offensively with 12 points off the bench in 21 minutes. Blondo and Kobe Bogart each had nine points with the former totaling seven rebounds, three assists and two steals, while the latter finished with eight rebounds, an assist and a block. Sean St. Lucia registered a game-high eight assists to go along with three rebounds, a block and six points.
The Hawks return to SUNYAC play Tuesday when they hit the road to face SUNY Cortland for a 7:30 p.m. tip. They currently sit second in the conference standings, only trailing conference undefeated No. 6 SUNY Oswego, which defeated them earlier in the week but since then won their last two.
“The mentality is to just go 1-0. Every game is something different,” Knight added. “We bring the same attitude to each game. The Oswego game was definitely a minor setback, but it’s all about how you respond to it so I’m excited for Cortland.”