SALISBURY -- Down 14 points with nine minutes remaining, an ordinary team might have folded.
As coach Ward Lambert has known all year, however, his Salisbury State program did not turn out just another Division III -- pretender this winter. The nation's second-ranked team lived up to its advance notice in its NCAA tournament opener, as the Sea Gulls made up that big deficit in three minutes and then dominated an anticlimactic overtime to post a 107-99 victory over Kean (N.J.) College in the Atlantic Region.
It was the first NCAA tournament game ever played at the Maggs Center, and March Madness will probably return here next week, because Salisbury State is expected to be host to a four-team sectional Friday and Saturday. The Sea Gulls, one of 16 teams left, will play Salem (Mass.) State Friday. Sectional winners will advance to the Final Four, March 20-21 at Wittenburg University in Springfield, Ohio.
"This is fun," said Lambert, who advances in the NCAA tournament for the first time in his 22 years at Salisbury State. "You aren't going to run into any bad teams in the NCAA playoffs, and when teams are equal, the home court means everything. That's what won it for us."
An overflow crowd of 1,932 backed a Sea Gulls (27-1) team that earned its No. 2 ranking and top seed in the Atlantic Region by putting together a winning streak that is now at 26 games, the longest current streak by an NCAA men's team at any level.
Senior forward Andre Foreman, the all-time leading scorer in Division III and a front-runner for National Player of the Year honor, heads an up-tempo outfit that for 31 minutes was beaten at its own game by Kean (20-10), the runner-up in the New Jersey Athletic Conference that already had one NCAA win under its belt. Lambert's fears that the Cougars were just as athletic as the Sea Gulls were well-founded, as were his contentions that his team was better-conditioned and deeper.
Kean scored seven straight points to finish a pulsating first half up 52-48, and the Cougars maneuvered through Salisbury State's non-stop pressure to take an 82-68 lead with 9:15 left. Walter Kelly completed a 3-on-1 break that furrowed many brows, but as Lambert said, "We're a team of flurries. I knew we could come back."
Salisbury State, which is averaging 101.1 points a game, scored 13 straight, including two three-pointers from sophomore guard Dameon Ross (DuVal High) and a final 12-footer from the left side by Foreman that made it 82-81 with 5:39 left.
Kean regrouped and retained the lead for the next four minutes, before junior point guard Bret Grebowsky (De Matha) received an outlet pass and hurried the ball downcourt to Foreman, whose acrobatic lay-in over a defender put the Sea Gulls up 94-93 with 57 seconds left.
Kean's possession gave senior guard Rich Lustig the Cougars' first free-throw of the second half. Lustig missed the first, hit the second, and Grebowsky and Ed Farrell missed shots to end it in the last 10 seconds. Foreman controlled the overtime tap, and the Sea Gulls scored the first 10 points to go deeper in the NCAA tournament than they ever had before.
Ross crammed 18 of his 30 points into the last seven minutes of the first half, when he kept Salisbury State in the game. Foreman had 28 points and 15 rebounds, and junior forward Kevin Cromer (DeMatha), Grebowsky and Farrell combined for 33 points and 22 rebounds. The Sea Gulls had a 69-53 rebound advantage, and were 19-of-30 at the line compared with 4-of-7 for Kean.
Lustig had eight three-pointers and 27 points for the Cougars, who got also got 14 points and 18 rebounds from junior center Fred Drains, the NJAC Player of the Year.
KEAN -- Lustig 9-23 1-2 27, Sands 3-10 0-0 8, Cox 3-9 2-2 8, Kelly 3-3 0-0 6, Foreman 6 -17 0-1 12, Conaway 4-4 0-0 8, Drains 7-16 0-1 14, Marsh 6-12 1-1 14, Clyburn 0- 2 0-0 0, Davidson 1-1 0-0 2. Totals 42-97 4-7 99.
SALISBURY STATE -- Jarrett 0-2 0-0 0, Grebowsky 2-9 6-6 11, Evans 0-0 0-0 0, Wolfe 0-0 0-1 0, Ross 12-26 1-1 30, Cromer 3-11 4-10 12, Farrell 3-10 4-6 10, Foreman 12-25 4-6 28, Jefferson 0-1 0-0 0, Gosweiler 4-7 0-0 8, Zdrojewski 3-10 0-0 8. Totals 39-101 19-30 107.
Halftime--Kean 52, Salisbury State 48. 3-point goals--K 11-24 (Lustig 8- 14, Sands 2-5, Marsh 1-3, Drains 0-2); SS - 10-27 (Ross 5-13, Cromer 2-2, Zdrojewski 2-4, Grebowsky 1-4, Foreman 0-3, Jarrett 0-1). Rebounds--K 53 (Drains 18); SS 69 (Foreman 15). Assists--19 (Cox 8); SS 22 (Wolfe, Ross 4). Total fouls--K 28; SS 11. Fouled out--Cox. A--1,932.