Fitchburg State men's basketball flies into MASCAC tourney

Fitchburg State men's basketball flies into MASCAC tourney

The defending MASCAC champion Fitchburg State men's basketball team dropped its first two conference games of the season and was 5-8 overall on Jan. 11.

Then, the Falcons' season took a sharp turn in the right direction.

"I don't know what it was," senior guard Leonny Burgos said. "Nobody really said anything. We just all understood we're not here to waste time."

Fitchburg State went on to win 10 straight MASCAC games and capture its second straight regular-season conference title and top seed for this week's tournament. Fitchburg State (15-10) will host the Westfield State/Worcester State winner in a semifinal at 7 p.m. Thursday.

"As coach (Titus Manderson) said, we haven't even played a full game yet," Burgos said, "but I think what it was at the beginning of the season, everybody was just so tight and tense and worried about things you shouldn't worry about when you're playing basketball.

"Coach did a really good job of giving us confidence to just play. We had to stop making excuses. Nobody else is playing besides us. We're going to win or we're going to lose. What are we going to do?"

The Falcons are on a five-game winning streak heading into the postseason.

"We've just been keeping our composure, listening to the coaching staff and getting comfortable with each other as a new unit," senior guard Jaleel Bell said.

The Falcons returned just five players from last year's team, which won 19 games, claimed the MASCAC Tournament championship and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Division 3 Tournament.

One of those returning players was Bell, who was the 2015-16 MASCAC Player of the Year, and is the favorite to repeat that honor this year.

Bell, a transfer from Franklin Pierce, has been terrific in his two years at Fitchburg State. He is averaging 22.2 points and 8.3 rebounds this year and is 36 points shy of 1,000 for his Fitchburg State career.

"Jaleel is something else," Burgos said. "It's amazing how talented he is. I know he works really hard, but you watch him play and everything looks so easy to him. It's fun to play with someone who gets as upset from losing as I do. I love playing with him. He's a competitor."

Manderson has done a commendable job in his four years at Fitchburg State. The Falcons won two games his first year. They've won 50 in the three years since.

Bell, Burgos and Jalen Williams, Fitchburg State's senior captains, have helped strengthen the program's foundation.

"Success is something that you look back at," Bell said, "but I just want to make sure it wasn't for nothing. We haven't finished anything yet. We just have to stay hungry, humble and focused."

Bell is from Dorchester and attended Wayland High, where he was a 1,000-point scorer.

This season he leads the MASCAC in scoring, is third in 3-point percentage and fifth in rebounding.

"Coming into the season, I just wanted to help my team win as many games as I could," Bell said, "be a better leader, communicate better with my teammates and grow as a person."

Burgos, who is from Lawrence, planned to play basketball at Lyndon State in Vermont, but, after a semester there, realized the location wasn't right for him. "I'm not a snow guy," he said. He returned home and attended community college for two years. He drew interest from Regis before suffering a broken hand.

Burgos still had hopes of playing college basketball and kept working at it. One day, while walking to his local YMCA, his phone rang. It was Manderson calling.

"He asked if I wanted to play basketball," Burgos said. "I remember running through the YMCA and telling my high school coach that he called me. I was so excited someone was interested in me. It was one of the best days ever."

Burgos is averaging 9.5 points and 3.2 assists. He dished out a season-high seven assists in a late-January win over Westfield State.

The Falcons beat Salem State in last year's MASCAC tourney final to capture the conference's automatic NCAA bid and went on to defeat Plattsburgh State in the first round.

Article Courtesy of Jen Tolland - Worcester Telegram & Gazette