Just three more: Men’s basketball is so close to history


Cameron Levasseur

Quinnipiac men’s basketball enters the MAAC tournament at No. 3 after its first 20-win season in the Dunleavy era.

Ethan Hurwitz, Sports Editor

It’s time for the MAAC Tournament and for the men’s basketball team, it cannot come soon enough.

Last March, the Bobcats went on a historic run, winning two games en route to becoming the first 11 seed to ever reach the MAAC semifinals. Despite losing to team-of-destiny Saint Peter’s Peacocks – who reached the Elite Eight – head coach Baker Dunleavy was proud of the historic run.

“The team quite obviously just had a lot of grit, not necessarily defined by the record, but defined by their improvement, and their mental toughness,” Dunleavy said after that loss last March.

This 2023 squad has experience, especially in the conference tournament, but two of last season’s best players – graduated forwards Jacob Rigoni and Kevin Marfo – are gone. Now the Bobcats need to rely on the players that they have all season long.

Quinnipiac’s core tandem of junior guard Dezi Jones, redshirt senior guard Matt Balanc and junior guard Luis Kortright have led this team all year and Dunleavy is confident that they can lead the way this week.

“I don’t think I have to explain it for them,” Dunleavy said. “They know. They know the gravity of it and they are excited for it.”

The Bobcats ended the regular season with a 88-76 win against the Marist Red Foxes, ending the year at 20-11, the first 20-win season in the Dunleavy era. In a season that has featured a win streak of seven and two separate three-game losing streaks, Dunleavy believes that the year can turn around in an instant.

“We have been streaky,” Dunleavy said on March 2. “We have to be streaky at the right time.”

Being streaky at the right time would see the Bobcats pull out just three more wins to officially go dancing, something that has hovered over this program like a dark cloud as of late. Despite all the wins, the time that Dunleavy has been marked as just not enough.

This could all change in Atlantic City.

As the third seed, the Bobcats will first face the winner of No. 6 Manhattan and No. 11 Marist on Thursday. In the four games against those teams in the regular season, Quinnipiac went 3-1, which also included a heartbreaking loss to the Jaspers on a buzzer-beating layup on Feb. 26.

The final day of the MAAC schedule was a hectic one, as the Bobcats entered Sunday as the conference’s sixth seed. By the time the clock hit zeroes in the final game, they had catapulted three teams to clinch the three seed, a first-round bye and a four-day rest before hitting the court again.

“To get that win, it allowed us that we could play the same defense that we have played all season,” Balanc said. “We can still do the type of stuff at the end of the season when you want to do it.”

To carry the regular season momentum into the postseason, the Bobcats will need to rely on that trio of Jones, Balanc and Kortright. Those three have been the team’s most consistent scorers all year and are the ones with the ball in their hands the most often. Add in the frontcourt duo of graduate student Ike Nweke and junior Paul Otieno and this team is built for a playoff push.

Jones has been the team’s primary ball handler all year and was recently named to the All-MAAC Second Team, averaging 12.4 points per game and 3.8 assists per game.

“It’s a big accomplishment,” Jones said. “(You can) thank my teammates for that … they have a big part in that.”

But Quinnipiac has been built for a deep run all season and it hasn’t come easy. Since the turn of the calendar, the Bobcats have blown four double-digit second-half leads, including a monumental collapse to Mount St. Mary’s on Feb. 5.

Why should the tournament in Atlantic City be any different than the Quinnipiac teams in the past that cannot get over the hump? Kortright believes this team is just different.

“With previous teams, we played very lackadaisically,” Kortright said. “With this team, we fight more, we push for greatness, we push each other and the coaches push us to a whole new level.”

The fight is evident in this team. They gel perfectly, on the court and off. Whether it is attending women’s basketball games as a unit, posting dancing TikTok videos or just playful jabs at each other during postgame press conferences, the Bobcats have the chemistry of a championship-caliber team.

Dunleavy mentions the depth of this squad ad nauseam and he’s right. Whether it is redshirt junior forward JJ Riggins playing valuable minutes down the stretch or sophomore forward Alexis Reyes hitting clutch shots in tight games, the team’s bench has been a valuable asset to the team’s fourth 20-win season in program history.

No one has been more crucial off of the bench than Tyrese Williams.

The graduate student guard has fully embraced his role as the sixth man. Williams doesn’t care if he is in the starting lineup or coming off the bench, he just wants to do right by himself, his community and his teammates.

“Just to know that I have so many people around me that want to see me do well pushes me to be the best in the room,” Williams said.

A final season in Hamden that saw him reaching the 1,000-career point mark and scoring a season-high 18 points against Fairfield on March 4 has been the icing on the cake to an illustrious career. What Williams, along with the rest of the team, is missing is that championship ring.

“I feel like if I can come out with a different type of intensity, it will give us the best chance to win,” Williams said.

The Bobcats are also the only current team in the entire conference that has not made the NCAA Tournament. Though they have made the National Invitational Tournament in the past, the one monkey on Quinnipiac’s back has been the lack of falling confetti and going to the dance.

The MAAC Tournament officially kicked off on Tuesday, and will be the shining moment of what has been a crazy regular season for all 11 teams. Quinnipiac just hopes that its shining moment doesn’t come until late Saturday night.