By Jim Fenton, The Enterprise (Brockton)
BRIDGEWATER, Mass. – They took turns climbing the ladder that had been set up at one end of the court inside the Tinsley Center.
With the song "We Are The Champions″ blaring from the speakers, members of the Bridgewater State University men's basketball team went through the ritual of cutting a piece of the net hanging from one of the baskets.
For the seventh time in program history, the Massachusetts State Collegiate Athletic Conference tournament championship belongs to the Bears, and they made sure to enjoy the moment.
Second-seeded Bridgewater State had to fight off a furious comeback bid by fourth-seeded Fitchburg State to earn a 77-72 victory on Saturday afternoon, sending the Bears to the NCAA Division 3 tournament for the eighth time.
With an enthusiastic crowd of 1,100 on hand, Bridgewater State clinched the title on its own floor for only the second time.
"I'm just very happy for the kids,″ said coach Joe Farroba, whose team won its first MASCAC crown since 2014. "It's a difficult process to win this.
"I'm just very pleased. There are what, 435 Division 3 teams in the country, and when you get this, going to the NCAAs, it's pretty special.″
The Bears had their hands full with the Falcons (13-15) down the stretch as a 21-point second-half lead they had built was trimmed all the way down to three by the visitors in the closing seconds.
Bridgewater State was struggling on offense and missing foul shots as Fitchburg State, which upset top-seeded Salem State in the semifinal round, made its charge.
But Rocky DeAndrade, the tournament most valuable player, hit four foul shots in the last 10 seconds to finally seal the championship.
"That's kind of what my job is,″ said DeAndrade, who was a calming influence in crunch time. "I'm the senior captain, the point guard. I take that responsibility full on.″
Joseph Carty had 16 points and 13 rebounds while DeAndrade added 12 points, five assists and three steals in 38 minutes.
Carty got BSU going in the first half when the Bears opened an 18-point lead before taking a 39-26 advantage into the locker room.
The edge climbed to 49-28 when BSU opened the second half on a 10-2 run, and the Bears were in front, 62-45, after a Ward 3-pointer with 9:10 to go.
But Fitchbug State, which was led by Tyrell St. John's 20 points, threw a score into BSU. The Falcons were within six with less than two minutes remaining, then closed within four points in the final minute.
Twice, Fitchburg State made it a one possession game (73-70 and 75-72), but DeAndrade connected from the line on both occasions.
"We just got a little stagnant on offense,″ said Farroba of the final eight minutes. "We were standing and watching. The ball would die in someone's hand and they were trapping. It got us out of our rhythm a little bit.″
But the Bears survived and now own six MASCAC titles in the past 13 years.
It was a celebratory scene on the court as BSU and its fans enjoyed the moment.
"It was definitely a good atmosphere right from the beginning all the way to the end,″ said DeAndrade. "The crowd was wild for us.
"The process to get here is hard enough and Fitchburg State didn't make it easy. We had to work all 40 minutes to get this done. It made it that much more special.″
The Bears will learn on Monday where they are headed for the NCAAs when the selection show takes place.
Four months after reporting for training camp in October, their season is alive.
"We felt we had the potential,″ said Farroba. "You have to build the chemistry and we did.
"Everybody in that locker room is buying into what Joe Farroba is selling and that's the key. You talk to coaches today and that's a big thing, getting 15 or 16 guys all buying in, and we have that.″