By Bob Flynn
Register Sports Writer
The Colonels will be making their first postseason appearance since 2010 when they take on Gardner-Webb at 7 p.m. today in the opening round of the CollegeInsider.com Tournament (CIT) in Boiling Springs, N.C.
The game can be heard on WCYO 100.7 FM and online at www.EKUSports.com.
The winners of first round games today and Wednesday will play on Saturday and Sunday.
The second-round CIT matchups will be decided on Thursday after the completion of the first round.
The Colonels (24-9) enter the CIT with the highest RPI (69) in the 32-team tournament field. The next highest is Air Force with a 79 RPI.
The Colonels have had one of the most successful seasons in school history, including setting a single-season school record with 24 wins. They opened the season with nine consecutive victories and finished the year with the second-best record in the OVC East Division.
But a loss to Murray State in the semifinals of the OVC Tournament ended their year earlier than they wanted it to. That loss still stings and the Colonels players say they are glad to have another opportunity to play and erase the memory of that game.
“We never want to end the season on a loss and we were all disappointed after the Murray game,” Colonel center Eric Stutz said. “I think we are all excited to get another chance and to keep playing because not many teams are right now.”
EKU senior point guard Mike DiNunno said although he would have liked to be playing in the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) he’s glad to just be playing again.
“Everybody came back last week with great attitudes. It is like we caught our second wind. That’s why I was hoping we could get that NIT bid because I really thought we could go in there and make some noise against some really good teams,” DiNunno said. “But we are still playing some really good teams in the CIT. We started the season on a really hot streak. It would be nice to end it on one.”
DiNunno, the lone senior on the squad said he thought his career was over after the loss in the OVC Tournament. Now that he has a second chance to play he is just enjoying the ride, especially the extra time with his teammates.
“The biggest thing for me is that I still get to be around these guys, just being around my brothers. Just to get to go through the practices, the pregame routines and all the little things with these guys is what I appreciate most about being able to play in the tournament,” DiNunno said. “This is the last go around and hopefully I will be able to play after this, but for all I know this could be my last game of organized ball and I want to enjoy every minute of it.”
The Runnin’ Bulldogs (21-12) finished with the second-best record in the Big South Conference.
Both EKU and Gardner-Webb have beaten teams from the opposing conference.
Gardner-Webb beat OVC teams Austin Peay and Tennessee Tech in the regular season, while EKU beat Big South Radford in McBrayer Arena and High Point on the road.
The Runnin’ Bulldogs have played well at the end of the season, having only lost two games since Jan. 23, both by three points, to Presbyterian College and to Liberty in the conference tournament.
Tashan Newsome leads the way for Gardner-Webb, averaging 14.1 points and 5.2 rebounds per game. Donta Harper is second on the team at 12.6 points and 4.8 rebounds per game.
As a team, the Runnin’ Bulldogs average 65.9 points per game while giving up an average of 60.5 points per game, and shoot 42.3 percent from the field and 33 percent from behind the three point line.
The Colonels have another opportunity today to do something no other EKU basketball team has ever done.
A win over Gardner-Webb would be the school’s first-ever postseason win, a fact that is not lost on the players.
DiNunno said a win would be icing on the cake for the successful year the team has enjoyed.
“It would mean a lot to get the school’s first win. We are still setting the standard. I think if you talk to coach about the ‘07 team and this team, he would give us a lot of credit. That means a lot comparing us to that team,” DiNunno said. “We are making our case for arguably one of the best teams ever at EKU, so this would be great to be able to pick up the first ever postseason win.”
Stutz, who was playing his best basketball of the season in the final weeks and in the OVC Tournament, said the extra practice time and games will be something the that the returning players can build on for next season. But the best part is getting to play with DiNunno at least one more time.
“I think this will definitely give us a lot of confidence going into next year. We were picked last in our conference but were able to make this tournament. We can come back next year with the expectation that we can do it again. I think that will make us work even harder next year,” Stutz said. “But the best part of playing in this tournament is that it gives Mike another chance to keep playing and lets us keep playing and enjoy him a little bit longer. The dynamic of this team is pretty great. Mike leads us on and off the court, so it’s nice that we can stay together and keep going as long as we can.”