Ryan Mosher/ERAU Athletics
The second-ranked Embry-Riddle men’s basketball team made it official on Saturday night in the ICI Center. The Eagles (26-1, 14-1) claimed the 2014-15 Sun Conference regular season title outright thanks to a 77-68 win over visiting St. Thomas (15-10, 10-6), earning an automatic berth to the 2015 NAIA II National Championship held in Point Lookout, Mo. at the College of the Ozarks. The Eagles led by as many as 29 points in the contest, placing five players in double-figures en route to the title-clinching victory. The Blue and Gold will also have home-court advantage throughout the 2015 Sun Conference Tournament which is slated for Feb. 24 – March 3.
Embry-Riddle will be back in action next Tuesday when the Eagles play host to Thomas at 7:30 p.m. in the ICI Center. The Night Hawks are the only team to beat the Eagles this season when they did so on Jan. 20 in Thomasville, Ga. (77-70).
The Eagles sprinted out to a 38-17 halftime lead and never looked back, despite a late run by St. Thomas that trimmed the ERAU lead to as little as seven with 30 seconds left. ERAU forced 11 first-half turnovers and outrebounded the visitors by eight in the period, getting eight points each from Dalton Barnes and Joseph Gonzalez as every Eagle that appeared in the half scored.
Barnes scored the first bucket of the game and the Eagles never trailed, rattling off six straight before a free throw from Lorel Beckford got the Bobcats on the board. A 9-0 run was capped by a Gonzalez layup with 14:42 left in the half as ERAU pushed its lead to 17-3.
St. Thomas got the deficit to 10 at 19-9 on a Chuckie Becton jumper, but a three-pointer from Cesar Pastrana and another from Jason Powell pushed the Eagle advantage to 25-11.
The Blue and Gold converted on five straight free throws to balloon the cushion to 30-13 and Powell connected on his second trey of the night on the next Eagle possession as the home team cruised to a 19-point lead at the break.
The second half started with the same narrative as the first period, with the Eagles opening up a nearly 30 point lead when DeForest Carter made a driving layup to cap a 7-0 Eagle run to begin the frame. David Santiago scored the first of his 21 second half points on a jumper with 18 minutes left to stop the bleeding, but the Eagles wouldn’t be stopped as Pastrana recorded an old-fashioned three-point play followed by a Reed Ridder fastbreak layup to move the Eagles in front by a score of 50-21.
STU hung around over the next 10 minutes, getting the lead under 20 on a Santiago layup with 5:39 left (62-44), but the run came too little, too late as the Eagles had enough in the tank to keep St. Thomas at arms length for the remainder of the contest.
Becton and Santiago combined for 43 of the Bobcats’ 68 points as the visitors shot 46 percent from the floor, but just 12-of-24 from the
free throw line.
Barnes finished with 15 points and nine rebounds while Carter added 13 points, eight boards, six assists and three steals to the Eagle effort. Powell and Gonzalez each had 12 points while Pastrana chipped in 10 points and six rebounds. The Eagles were dominant on the glass, outrebounding STU 43-27.
Following the regular season and Sun Conference Tournament, the Eagles will be making their 15th NAIA National Tournament appearance (third straight).