State Colleges

This is how Connor Zinaich got the Nova Southeastern University men closer to title

NSU’s Connor Zinaich, left, goes for a shot against Miles Golden Bears on Saturday, March 16, 2019 at Rick Case Arena in Fort Lauderdale. Zinaich had game highs in points (25) and rebounds (nine).
NSU’s Connor Zinaich, left, goes for a shot against Miles Golden Bears on Saturday, March 16, 2019 at Rick Case Arena in Fort Lauderdale. Zinaich had game highs in points (25) and rebounds (nine). FOR THE MIAMI HERALD

Five against seven — that’s what it’s like to play against Nova Southeastern University’s men’s basketball team, ranked fifth in the nation in Division II.

Just ask Miles College, which lost to the Sharks 80-66 Saturday night in host NSU’s first NCAA tournament game.

“We knew they were going to pressure us, and that’s why we practiced five-on-seven all week,” said Fred Watson, who coaches Miles, located in Fairfield, Alabama.

But even with that unique practice strategy, Miles couldn’t solve NSU’s pressure.

The Sharks (27-3) forced a whopping 26 turnovers and held Miles to 43.4 percent shooting, including just 4 of 16 on three-pointers, as they advanced to Sunday’s South Region semifinals, also at Rick Case Arena.

NSU will play West Alabama Sunday at 7:30 p.m. The other half of the semifinals will feature a matchup between Florida Southern and Lynn at 5 p.m. Sunday.

When the tournament started Saturday, there were three teams representing the Sunshine State Conference, and all of them advanced: NSU, Lynn and Florida Southern.

“This could be the strongest league in the country,” NSU coach Jim Crutchfield said. “It’s not just because of the teams playing here who qualified. It’s because of the depth in our league. Every team is tough.”

But no SSC team has been as consistently tough this season as the Sharks, who were led on Saturday by Connor Zinaich, who had game highs in points (25) and rebounds (nine).

His effort helped NSU — which held a slim lead during a 31-30 first half — blow out Miles after intermission.

“I knew my teammates — [point guard David Dennis] especially — were going to put me in position to score the ball,” said Zinaich, who had a 39-point game earlier this season. “Once that opened up, everyone started to hit threes, and we went from up one to up 20 just like that.”

Zinaich led four NSU scorers in double figures. Mikkel Kolstad had 16 points, going 5 of 6 on three-pointers; Dennis had 14 points, eight assists and five steals, turning the ball over just once in the second half; and Mark Matthews had 11 points, seven rebounds and five assists.

There were about 900 fans in the arena, which doesn’t sound like much. But it’s way more than NSU games used to draw when the highly successful Crutchfield arrived on campus before the start of the 2017-2018 season.

Saturday’s crowd was not just improved, but also loud.

“It goes hand in hand,” Crutchfield said. “When you get runs with pressure [as NSU had in the second half], the crowd gets into it, and it feeds into the adrenaline of the players.”

The Sharks, if they keep winning will also play at home Tuesday night in the South Region final. And with two added victories today and Tuesday, NSU would be halfway toward the six victories it needs to win a national title.

“Home court helps a lot,” Zinaich said. “The fans have been there for us, and we appreciate it.”

Added Dennis: “The way we play is fun to watch. We put up a lot of points and get up and down. The more we win, the more people will come.”

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