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Eastern upsets No. 13 Widener for MAC Commonwealth championship

02/24/2024, 11:00pm EST
By Joseph Santoliquito

By Joseph Santoliquito (@JSantoliquito)

CHESTER — Eastern University was undergoing some gym renovations four years ago. Each respective coach was asked what they wanted on their wall banners. When they went to Eagles’ men’s basketball coach Dan Pruessner, they asked if he wanted a conference championship board put up—because the men’s basketball program did not have any.

Pruessner insisted a black horizontal six-foot banner go up with nothing on it. Time will provide the years.

The year 2024 was answered Saturday night, when the Eagles pulled off a mild shocker by beating No. 13 nationally ranked Widener, 98-69, in the MAC Commonwealth championship to earn an automatic berth in the Division III NCAA Tournament.

Sophomore Zubair Lee, the Eagles’ 6-foot-7 sophomore forward out of Eastern High School (Voorhees, N.J.), was named tournament MVP after scoring a game-high 25 points and grabbing 12 rebounds, with strong support from guards Kaeshawn Ward and Davin Hernandez, who scored 16 points each.

What is more amazing about the victory is that Eastern (20-7) was beaten twice during the MAC Commonwealth regular season by Widener, giving up an average of 93.5 points over the two losses to The Pride, who beat Eastern by an average of 17.5 points a game.

Eastern sophomore Zubair Lee scored 25 points in Saturday's win over Widener. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)

In the first game against Widener, Lee was held to three points on 0-for-9 shooting from the field.

“The second game we lost to Widener, we realized we had to make adjustments to our defensive scheme,” Lee said. “We were full-court pressing from the beginning of January in every single game until Widener beat us again a second time. We talked to the coaches about it, because it was tiring against teams that were smart and experienced like Widener that could move the ball around.

“It wore us down. We felt we could stay in front of them. It was hard staying in front of them for 90 feet. Widener is older, smart group of guys. To beat them, we had to stay composed and everyone had to have a great game. Everyone did.”

It was Widener (23-4) that cracked under the pressure. Star forward Dominic Dunn was saddled with four fouls for a portion of the second half, but the Pride simply did not shoot well, hitting 9 of 36 in the second half (25%) to Eastern’s sterling 17 of 34 and its 35 of 70 for the game.

Dunn, who entered the game averaging a team-high 14.4 points a game, averaged 23.5 points against the Eagles in Widener’s two victories. He was held to eight points on 3 of 12 shooting.

“Both times we played them, we won handily, but the games were competitive,” Dunn said. “Both games we won we really shut down Lee. They outplayed us. This time, they defended me different. They put (6-5 senior Eljay) Morris on me, because (6-4 Jaron) Fairweather had covered me the last couple of games. They did a good job not overhelping. When we made drives, we had to finish ourselves. They changed some things from the last time they saw us.”

Widener will be hosting at least one NCAA Tournament game.

“I’ve been to four conference championship games and this one is the this first time I lost,” Dunn said. “This is new territory for me. We are going to make a decision on Monday whether we will let this sit with us and start to splinter, or turn it around and make something out of it. We have a unique opportunity. This is by far the most talented team I have ever played for, and a team that could go to a Final Four, if we get it together.”

The Eastern men's basketball team poses together after defeating Widener for the MAC Commonwealth championship on Saturday. (Photo: Dan Mouw/Eastern Athletics)

Widener coach Chris Carideo feels they can.

“Eastern played a great second half and we have had a great season and were in second halves like that quite a bit,” Carideo said. “But we have in our three losses a tendency to not play very well when we get behind and that happened in the second half. They got into the teeth of our defense and out the ball in the basket.

“I told them that they are going to have wallow in this, as they should, and Monday afternoon, we are in the Selection Show and we are going to find out who we are playing here Friday night. We can’t get ourselves in a situation where we lay in it for too long. We have older guys. I think our guys will be okay.”  

As for Eastern, which outrebounded Widener 45-32, the Eagles appear in a good shape after their first conference title settles in.

Pruessner saw his team rebound from 15 down, 28-13, with 11:12 left in the first half. He saw them go on a 20-13 scoring spree to close out the first half up 48-46 and proceed to watch them go on another 25-14 tear to gain control of the game midway through the second half.

There was one telling sequence for Eastern, when Ward drove the lane, missed, then found his balance and recovered in time to actually rebound his own miss. That type of determination spoke volumes about the Eagles' determination Saturday night.

“We all wanted to embrace this goal of a conference championship, everyone in the program embraced it,” he said. “Watching this game, you can see our athleticism is our advantage. Widener is different. They pass the ball well, they are patient and this is the first game all year long, we ran back and did not press. It worked.

“I have this (game-winning net around his neck). I may not take it off for a while. Our guys battled all night. But I told my guys before the game, there are a lot of people telling us the third time is the charm, and I told them we have 17 guys who know tonight that they are going to win. This has been a long time coming.”

Joseph Santoliquito is a hall of fame, award-winning sportswriter based in the Philadelphia area who began writing for CoBL in 2021 and is the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be followed on Twitter here.

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