Suddenly the Stoutenburgh Gym is turning into the mecca for Division II men's basketball.
Last Saturday, St. Anselm defeated Southern New Hampshire University 83-75 in a nationally televised game. On Saturday, four days after posting a huge 86-85 road win against St. Michael's College, the Hawks return home to battle Franklin Pierce University at 3:30 p.m. for first place in the Northeast Division of the Northeast-10 Conference.
The Hawks, 8-2 since Jan. 4 and winners in five of their last six games, are 15-6 overall and 13-4 in conference play. Franklin Pierce, coming off a 76-75 home win against SNHU Tuesday, is 18-4 overall and 13-4 in the NE-10. At the moment, FPU is the top-ranked team in the conference because of its 77-73 home triumph over the Hawks on Dec. 7.
Two of Franklin Pierce's losses this season have come against St. Michael's, a team the Hawks beat Tuesday behind double-digit scoring by junior Roy Mabrey (27 points), sophomore Mike McCahey (19), senior John Nielsen (18 points) and junior Chris Santo, who finished with 13 points. Santo scored the winning basket in the final minute.
"We knew this was going to be a difficult week," said Dickson. "Our rivalry with Southern New Hampshire is big enough in itself and then having it televised nationally created such a great atmosphere. I said at the beginning of the season that St. Michael's was the most talented team in our league. Franklin Pierce is just an outstanding team that knows how to win. Their record over the years shows just how successful they've been. Right now, if anyone wants to win anything in our league, you've got to go through Franklin Pierce."
On defense, St. Anselm will have to contain senior forward Ellis Cooper, averaging 18 points a game and junior forward Ryen Vilmont (16.1), who scored nine of his team's final 13 points in December's win against the Hawks.
"I have the utmost respect for Cooper, a player who exerts his will on his team," said Dickson. "When Franklin Pierce got him, he just changed the culture of that program. Vilmont is a talented player who elevated his game to all-conference status. Overall they're a tough team to beat."
Dickson said it was fair to make the offensive comparison between this year's Hawks team and the 1995-96 edition led by Darren Clough, Brendan McCarthy and John O'Connell. This year's team is averaging 87.6 points a game compared to the program record of 88.8 held by the 1995-96 team.
"The change in rules recently, preventing hand-checking on defense, has opened the game more and plays into our favor," said Dickson. "But we're a lot like that (1995-96) team, very explosive and hard to defend."
In the first meeting with the Hawks, Franklin Pierce blocked 16 shots and out-rebounded St. Anselm, 44-35. "If we're giving up 15 or 16 offensive rebounds, that's giving any team too many second-chance opportunities and it's hard to make up. The blocked shots on their part was a factor, but we let ourselves down at the free throw line (7 for 14). In areas where we can control our own fate, we sometimes shoot ourselves in the foot."
St. Anselm won the regular-season title last year and now has placed itself in position to repeat as champs.
"We knew going into this week that we'd give ourselves that chance playing St. Michael's and Franklin Pierce back-to-back," said Dickson. "We won a big road game Tuesday, giving us a chance to move into first place. Hopefully we take advantage of it at home."