HARTFORD, Conn. – The Salisbury University men's basketball team advanced to the second round of the NCAA Division III tournament, as the Sea Gulls defeated Eastern Connecticut State University 66-54 in first-round action, behind a career-high 37 points from junior Wyatt Smith.
Salisbury jumped out to a quick 4-2 lead in the first two minutes of the game, with Smith scoring the Gulls' first bucket on a layup on the left side, followed by two free throws from sophomore Justin Witmer.
Eastern Connecticut came back to take a 5-4 lead, as the teams traded the advantage four times in the first five minutes of the game until the Warriors took a 10-7 lead with a three from Collin Jordan.
The Sea Gulls kept the deficit to three or less over the next few minutes, and trailing 14-13 with 10:03 left in the first half, Smith spun to his left on the right block and finished with a hook shot to grab the lead again for the Gulls.
The Warriors answered with a layup, but Smith came right back down and drove from the right wing into the middle of the paint for a layup; the shot began a 12-0 run in Salisbury's favor.
Smith and sophomore Gordon Jeter combined to control the game during the stretch, as Jeter converted a layup on the right side, after cutting under the basket, left to right, to take a 19-16 lead.
With a layup and a jump shot, Smith scored two-straight baskets, and the duo finished the run, each hitting a pair of free throws.
The Sea Gull defense held the Eastern Connecticut offense to force a scoring draught of over five minutes, causing eight missed Warrior shots and one turnover, as the spurt gave Salisbury a 27-16 lead with 2:38 to go before the break.
Salisbury took the 11-point edge into halftime, 31-20, after Smith continued a dominant half by netting two more layups. He led the team with 20 points, on 9-of-11 shooting, and five rebounds in the first half, while the Gulls shot 46.2 percent from the floor and held the Warriors to only 27.6 percent. Salisbury also led the rebounding 21-14.
Layups from Jeter and Smith in the opening minutes of the second half helped to keep the double-digit advantage for the Sea Gulls, but trailing 35-24 the Warriors went on a 9-2 run to cut the Salisbury lead to only four with 15:18 to go.
A 4-0 spurt, capped by a layup from Jeter, after cutting down the right lane on the back side for an open look on a cross-court pass from junior Adrien Straughn bumped Salisbury's lead back to eight, 41-33.
Eastern Connecticut answered to get back to within three, but Smith continued to pound the inside of the Warriors' defense, scoring a hook shot on the right block, before making two layups to push the lead to seven; he added two free throws for eight-straight Salisbury points and a 49-40 advantage with just over seven minutes left to go.
A put-back from junior Kyle Savercool on a fastbreak held the lead at nine, as the Sea Gulls continued to hold off any Warrior comeback attempts.
Eastern Connecticut got as close as three one more time with 3:25 remaining, but Jeter answered with a layup and a baseline turn-around jumper on the right side, before Smith threw down a two-handed dunk to again push the lead back to nine, 61-52, with just over one minute remaining in the game.
The Sea Gulls hit five free throws in the final minute to secure the victory.
Post play proved crucial for the Salisbury effort, as Smith shot 16-for-20 from the field in his team-leading effort, while Jeter chipped in with 14 points on 6-of-9 shooting. Smith also led the team with nine rebounds, while senior Conor Strickland dished out a team-best six assists.
Salisbury moves on to a second-round contest on Saturday, March 7, taking on the winner of another first-round game between Trinity (Conn.) College and Colby-Sawyer College; the opening tip for the second-round game is set for 7 p.m.