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Suddenly, we own college hoops in this corner of the world

New London — On any other Monday afternoon ... it would have been any other Monday afternoon at Coast Guard Academy. Wind whipping off the Thames, all the yes-sirs and no-ma'ams of military life, mixed with the vagaries of quadratic equations in the classrooms.

But then there was this one place inside the Alumni Center, where the basketball players gathered to inhale lunch and stare at a large screen. Just like you see on television. All waiting to see their name and their opponent, now that this ride of reverie continues, all the way to the NCAA Division III tournament.

It was a little less than 24 hours earlier that the Bears, left for dead a few weeks ago, won their third road game in five days, this one for the conference tournament championship at WPI. The third NCAA berth in the last 13 years for the little engineers who could, even though they were down 25 in the second half.

But then, they were down 11 at Springfield and 12 at Emerson last week, too. And won anyway.

The celebration began on the floor at WPI and then ran like a current to Filomena's on Sunday night, where texts and calls from program alums kept flowing like Bud in the bleachers.

Once a Bear, always a Bear.

"I guess what I'll remember," Coast Guard coach Kevin Jaskiewicz was saying in his office, "is (senior) Packy Witkowski playing himself into complete exhaustion. The look on his face during a timeout in the fourth quarter said it all. Justin Kane couldn't play (in the semifinals) two days earlier because of his foot. He took off the boot and went out there anyway.

"Noah Baldez gave us the lead in the fourth quarter after we were down 25 with two free throws, after absolutely exerting himself on a possession where he got four offensive rebounds. I took him out. He looked at me and said 'I am all right.'"

Now the Bears get The College of Brockport in the first round, located in Brockport, N.Y., 20 miles west of Rochester and 11 miles south of Lake Ontario. If they leave now they may get there in time.

"Brockport is lovely this time of year," Rear Adm. Bill Kelly, the affable Coast Guard Superintendent, told the team Monday. Adm. Kelly made it a point to watch the Selection Show with the team and coaches.

It was a good day to be a Bear.

Happily, the joy isn't limited to the local military hamlet on the Thames. Others from our corner of the world are dancing in the Division III tournament as well.

Here is a giant sah-loot, as they used to say on Hee Haw, to all of them:

• DeAnte Bruton, Ledyard: OK. Full disclosure: I should be fired for not writing about him sooner. I'm not sure we've had a kid here in our corner of the world not named Harold Pressley, Tyson Wheeler or Kris Dunn who has ever had a better college career.

Bruton, The Day's 2015 Player of the Year, just led Nichols to its fourth straight Commonwealth Coast Conference title. His conference tournament: 36 points and 11 rebounds in the quarters, 40 and 6 in the semis and 38 and 14 in the finals. Ridiculous.

He eclipsed 2,000 points some time ago and led Nichols to the Div. III Elite Eight last year. He's been a first-team All-CCC player for four years.

Matt Johnson of Waterford, an assistant baseball coach at Nichols, said of Bruton, "I've never seen anything like it. He legitimately willed them to a win the other night. This is special."

Bruton and the Bison play at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken (N.J.) at 6:30 Friday night.

• Liam Spellman, Waterford: Spellman is becoming this region's Bill Russell. His teams just win. (If you youngins don't know Bill Russell, try this: "Hey, Alexa. Who is Bill Russell?")

Anyhoo, Spellman, a freshman at Ithaca College, averaged 12 minutes per game and is one of only two players in the program to play in all 28 games this season. He helped the Bombers to the Liberty League championship for the first time since 2013.

In Spellman's last five basketball seasons, he's been part of four high school divisional championship teams, two high school conference tournament champions, two high school state champions, a college conference tournament champion and an NCAA tournament team. In the last five years, Spellman's teams are 113-19.

And to think a few dullards questioned his place on our recent all-decade team. What, you think this is a coincidence that winning follows this kid like the blanket did to Linus?

Ithaca plays Babson in the first round Friday at 5 p.m. on the campus of Swarthmore in suburban Philadelphia.

• Glen Miller: How fitting that Miller and Jaskiewicz, the two architects of Connecticut College's Final Four team in 1999, won conference tournaments on the same day 21 years later. Miller, coaching with Jim Calhoun at St. Joseph's, has done a lot of the work this year helping the second-year program to the NCAA tournament.

Miller and Jaskiewicz communicated by text Sunday night.

"Glen always said it was about the climb," Jaskiewicz said. "I don't think there's a comparison now though to our days at Conn. Coaching at a service academy is a different experience."

But a shared experience this week with so many others from our corner of the world.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro


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