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New London — Mitchell College is adjusting to life in unfamiliar but welcome territory.
The Mariners have never been in first place this late in the New England Collegiate Conference men's basketball season. And they've never won a regular-season title.
On Tuesday, another upset-minded conference opponent took aim at Mitchell, which managed to suffer only a flesh wound while scoring a hard-fought 84-79 overtime victory over Lesley University at the Yarnall Athletic Center.
"We've got a target on our back," senior co-captain Alex Del Rio said. "This is the first year we have it, but we had experience from last year. We've got to keep it rolling."
Last season, Mitchell took another major step forward by posting its first winning record overall and in conference play as a Division III program.
With all five starters back, including NECC Player of the Year Joshua Ford, the Mariners are determined to capture their first conference championship.
With Tuesday's win, Mitchell (13-4, 9-1) strengthened its grip on first place.
Coach Todd Peretz didn't enjoy the game as much as the enthusiastic home crowd. Lesley (2-14, 0-7) frustrated Mitchell by playing a compact zone and slowing down the tempo.
The Mariners took longer than Peretz wanted to make the necessary adjustments. They also played some leaky defense.
"I'm a little disappointed," Peretz said. "Of course, every coach wants to have an 'A' game every night. Sometimes, we don't.
"If we're going to win this league, and three or four teams have a legitimate chance to win, we're going to have to get better defensively."
It's a good thing the Mariners had Ford on their side. Ford fought his way through the heart of the zone to post a game-high 26 points and grab 11 rebounds. Senior Anthony Epps added 18 points and sophomore Frank Martin had 14 - all after halftime.
"At this point, we're going to take everybody's best shot," Peretz said. "Teams are going to do things defensively that maybe we're not accustomed to, and we've got to make adjustments. They did a really good job dictating the tempo of the game."
The Mariners trailed by 10 early before rallying to take a 34-31 halftime lead.
But, on the verge of closing out the win, Mitchell watched Branden Padgett force overtime with a deep game-tying 3-pointer with three seconds remaining.
After falling behind 75-72 with 2:32 left in overtime, the Mariners finally seized control. Ford's free throw handed them the lead for good, 76-75, with 41 seconds left.
Martin's breakaway layup off a clutch steal extended the lead to 78-75. The Mariners made six straight free throws to hold on. Despite the fact the Mariners have won 11 of their last 12 games, Peretz sees plenty of room for improvement.
Transfer Parris Hill, who came into the game averaging 23.2 points and 10.6 rebounds, has played only nine games with his new teammates. He had a quiet eight points and four rebounds on Tuesday. Epps recently returned to the lineup after sitting out the first semester.
"I still don't think they know how to play with one another and play off of each other's strengths," Peretz said.
A big game is on the horizon as Mitchell visits Daniel Webster (12-5, 5-3) on Thursday in Nashua, N.H.