After sweeping NJIT to end the regular season, the Binghamton men’s basketball team will face off against the Hartford Hawks in the first round of the 2021 America East (AE) Playoffs. Binghamton will enter the matchup as the No. 9 seed, whereas Hartford will enter the game as the No. 4 seed.

“We got to stay together,” said sophomore guard Brenton Mills. “[We need to] keep working hard and keep pushing each other and stay focused on the main goal which is to win the conference championship.”

Binghamton last played against Hartford on Jan. 2 and Jan. 3 where the Bearcats lost both games. Although the Bearcats suffered a sizable 76-56 loss in the first matchup, the Bearcats were highly competitive against Hartford during their rematch the following day. The Bearcats ultimately fell short 77-74, losing on a buzzer-beater.

One of the primary struggles of Binghamton during these previous games was limiting Hartford’s offense. Although Binghamton struggled to contain the Hawks’ attack, the Bearcats played each of these games without senior center Thomas Bruce. Binghamton head coach Tommy Dempsey believes that Bruce’s defensive presence will have a major impact on the outcome of Saturday’s game.

“We are a different team,” Dempsey said. “Our defense is almost 10 points per game better in the games that he’s played. We’ve played good enough offense to win, but we haven’t played good enough defense throughout most of the season to win. [But] we’re playing really good defense right now and him being back in the lineup is a good reason why.”

Bruce has only played eight games this season. When healthy, Bruce thrives as a defensive anchor for the Bearcats. Prior to last weekend’s matchups, opponents averaged nearly 11 fewer points per game and shot 45 percent inside the arc with Bruce in the lineup as opposed to 53 percent without him.

Although the Bearcats own the worst record among teams in the tournament, they have won three out of their last four games. In their past three wins, Binghamton has enjoyed an average win margin of 16 points. Whereas their last three wins were blowouts, their one loss during this stretch came from an overtime defeat. Dempsey is optimistic that his team is peaking at the right time after sweeping NJIT last week.

“Not only did we play well in both games [against NJIT] but [Mills] didn’t play in either game,” Dempsey said. “So the overall energy level, enthusiasm and execution [were] really at a high for us. It gives the guys even more confidence that Brenton wasn’t there. We expect to take the court [against Hartford] with our full team here for the conference tournament.”

Mills, who was out last week due to COVID-19 protocols, is expected to return to the lineup against Hartford this Saturday. Mills was recently named third-team all-conference and leads the Bearcats in scoring at 14.8 points per game, good enough for fourth in the conference.

“I’m proud of [Mills],” Dempsey said. “He made the all-rookie team last year and the next logical step was to try to make the all-conference team this year. It was easy to make excuses to not get better. In a year when it was easy not to get better, he got better and he was awarded being named all-conference.”

Although Mills was humbled to win all-conference honors, he remains focused on winning against Hartford this Saturday.

“It means a lot being recognized by my peers and coaches and other staff in the league,” Mills said. “But we can’t be satisfied, we have to keep working hard and continue to grow.”

Binghamton enters the playoffs this year as a very young team. Along with Mills, sophomore forwards George Tinsley and Bryce Beamer alongside sophomore guards Tyler Bertram and Dan Petcash will all get their first taste of playoff action this Saturday. Dempsey believes that playing in the playoffs this year can serve as a valuable experience for the young players on the team.

“You want to taste success in the postseason,” Dempsey said. “[The] postseason can be a springboard for the next season. But you can only take care of Saturday. Our guys have always shown up to the fight and there will be a fight on Saturday and our guys will be ready to play hard.”

If the Bearcats defeat Hartford, they will play the winner of Saturday’s No. 8 NJIT vs. No. 5 Albany matchup on Sunday with a trip to the semifinals on the line.

Tipoff against Hartford is scheduled for 2 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 27 at the Chase Family Arena in West Hartford, Connecticut.