Extra Points: Stockton ready for Sweet 16
By DAVID WEINBERG
Stockton University men's basketball coach Scott Bittner wasn't expecting this.
He believed the Ospreys had an excellent chance to win the New Jersey Athletic Conference, but he thought the team was a year away from challenging for a national championship.
"I thought this would be a year to get our feet wet," Bittner said.
Instead, the Ospreys are experiencing a wave of success that has left them drenched from their jerseys to their sneakers.
Two impressive victories in the first two rounds of the NCAA Division III tournament earned the team a berth in the Round of 16 for the first time in eight years. Stockton (26-4) will face Chris. Newport (26-2), of Newport News, Virginia on Friday at 4 p.m. Host Marietta (27-2) will play Oswego State (New York) at 7 p.m. The winners will meet on Saturday for a spot in the Final Four in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
"Our top priority all year was to win the conference (NJAC)," Bittner said. "After we did that, I think we've been playing a lot looser because there's less pressure now. Now we're just focused on having fun and enjoying the experience."
The Ospreys had a blast in the first two rounds, which were held at Stockton's "Big Blue" arena last weekend.
Students packed the bleachers, providing a rowdy atmosphere. The Ospreys gave them plenty of reasons to cheer with wins over Wilson College (87-52) and Johns Hopkins (70-63).
"I'm watching a lot of these (NCAA Division I) games (on TV) and many of them don't have crowds near as good as we have had our last (two) games," Bittner said on Twitter. "Thanks to the community for making the last (two) games unforgettable for our kids."
Most of the roars were reserved for Stockton junior guard D.J. Campbell. Campbell, the NJAC Player of the Year, poured in a career-best 33 points against Wilson and added 28 against Johns Hopkins.
He was in a special zone against Wilson. Campbell drained seven 3-pointers, most of which were seemingly launched from the parking lot. He also had a pair of dunks that rattled the rim and The Phoenix.
Midway through the first half, Campbell, a Vineland High School graduate, got loose on a breakaway and threw down a two-handed stuff in front of a group of Stockton baseball players who were sitting in the bleachers behind the basket that gave the Ospreys a 20-point lead.
"You wish you had D.J. Campbell!" the baseball players yelled to Wilson coach Mark Seidenburg.
Seidenburg, a North Wildwood summer resident, turned to the bleachers, smiled, and nodded.
"I'm not blind," he said as the fans chuckled.
Campbell is far from the only star, however.
The lineup also includes Kyion Flanders, a junior guard from Wildwood who was this season's NJAC Defensive Player of the Year, plus other standouts like junior guards Rynell Lawrence from Millville - younger brother of Jacksonville Jaguars running back Ryquell Armstead - and Kadian Dawkins.
Dawkins, who scored 32 combined points in the first two tournament games, has helped make up for the loss of senior guard Luciano Lubrano, an Ocean City High School grad who returned for a fifth season at Stockton only to suffer a torn anterior cruciate ligament last month.
"I think D.J. has been playing as well as anyone in the country," said Bittner, the NJAC Coach of the Year. "And the best thing is he's such a hard worker. He scored 33 against Wilson and texted me at 5:30 this next morning asking when the gym would be open so he could work on his shot.
"Everyone has stepped up their game. Dawkins has played very well as our point guard for the last six weeks. Flanders might be our most important player because he does all the little things that other players can't do. Johns Hopkins had a very good team, but there came a point in the second half when I thought the best three players on the court were playing for us."
Stockton is two wins away from reaching the Final Four for the third time in program history, having achieved it in 1987 and 2009, respectively, under legendary former coach Gerry Matthews. The Ospreys made one appearance in the Championship Game, losing 61-52 to Washington University of St. Louis.
Chris. Newport and Marietta are considered the top teams in the bracket. Newport is No. 4 in the latest D3hoops.com poll while Marietta is No. 2 (Randolph-Macon is No. 1).
But don't count out the Ospreys. Now that they've gotten their feet wet, they won't mind taking a dip in deeper waters.