Published March 02. 2014 4:00AM
Chicopee, Mass. — As Mitchell College celebrated its first NCAA Division III tournament berth in men's basketball program history Saturday, coach Todd Peretz stood on the sidelines soaking it all in.
Peretz enjoyed the jubilant scene following a thrilling 72-71 win over top-seeded Elms College in the New England Collegiate Conference tournament championship game at Picknelly Arena.
After some very lean years, he's guided the Mariners (19-7) to their most successful season in Division III.
"The kids went crazy," Peretz said of the team's reaction when the buzzer sounded. "It turned into something that you see on ESPN, storming the floor. Obviously, the kids are very, very excited. It's one of those surreal moments. You just take it all in.
"I didn't get in the pile. I took a step back and took it in from a distance. … It hasn't been the easiest of roads."
Mitchell became third athletic program in school history to earn an automatic berth, joining baseball (2011) and women's soccer (2010). The Mariners will learn their destination and opponent on Monday.
As he's done all season, senior Joshua Ford sparked the second-seeded Mariners. He converted the game-winning free throw with 24 seconds left and finished with a game-high 25 points and 12 rebounds while also earning tournament most valuable player honors. Junior Parris Hill added 17 points, nine rebounds and three blocks and made the All-tournament team. Senior Anthony Epps had 10 points.
Mitchell rallied from a nine-point deficit with about 10 minutes to play, gradually chipping away at the deficit. Senior Alex Del Rio's basket tied the score at 71 with 1:02 remaining before Ford delivered the deciding point.
Elms (15-12) had several chances to win the game but misfired on three attempts and Hill blocked another one.
"You look up at the clock, and it seemed like it took forever," Peretz said of the final seconds. "We were fortunate at the end but we did some really good things. We could have easily folded when we were down nine.
"We took a timeout and just said stick with it and believe in the system."
Mitchell played strong two-way basketball, shooting 53.4 percent and holding Elms to just 40.6.
The two teams split the regular-season series. A disappointing 94-84 loss on Feb. 19 helped Elms secure the right to host the NECC tournament final four.
Peretz saw signs in Friday's 87-78 semifinal win over Becker College that the Mariners were ready to challenge for the championship.
"We felt good going into today," Peretz said. "I think after (Friday's) win I saw something, quite frankly, that I didn't see this year. We really played with a lot of toughness.
"I think traditionally two of the toughest teams in our conference are Becker and Elms. They've been the two teams that have gone to the NCAA tournament since the inception of the league."
Now it's Mitchell's turn to represent the NECC in the NCAA tournament.
"It means a lot," Peretz said. "A win like this is great for us and great for the program."