WALTHAM - Nate Fritsch is the heart and soul of Bentley's men's basketball team, a versatile and cerebral player with the ability to drain a three, take it hard to the rim with a smooth finish, rip down a key rebound, or set up a teammate.
The 6-foot-6-inch fifth-year senior put his vast talents on display in the second half of last night's NCAA Division 2 Northeast Regional, propelling the top-ranked Falcons to their 32d straight win, and second straight Regional final, in a convincing 60-41 victory over Bryant before a packed house of 2,376 at the Dana Center.
Bentley (32-0) will host Northeast-10 foe Assumption (24-10) in tomorrow night's final - the teams' fourth meeting this season, and a rematch of last week's conference final - with a trip to the Elite 8 in Springfield on the line.
The Falcons are back in the final thanks to a dogged defensive effort, limiting Bryant to 26 percent shooting, and with Fritsch taking a leading role.
Fritsch (game-high 17 points, 6 assists, and 5 rebounds in 22 minutes) buried the first of his four second-half 3-pointers to give Bentley a 42-35 lead. When he drained back-to-back treys with nine minutes left, and freshman Tommy Dowling sank another 3-pointer from the wing, Bentley soared to a 60-37 spread with a 21-2 blitz.
"We don't look to shoot [threes] aggressively," said Fritsch, who was 4 of 5 from beyond the arc.
Bentley coach Jay Lawson said the performance was typical for his selfless senior.
"I've prodded him for five years to assert himself individually. If you saw Nate in the offseason pickup games, you'd think that Nate averaged 25 a game. But that's not his mentality.
"Today, Nate realized that we had Lew [Finnegan] on the bench with fouls, and we had other people in foul trouble."
And when Bryant went to a box-and-1 on senior point guard Yusuf Abdul-Ali, it opened up the floor for Fritsch and the rest of the Falcons.
At the other end, the Falcons defended with aggression. Bryant (18-13) hit five of its first eight shots but was just 8 of 42 the rest of the way.
"We certainly put our defensive hats on today, we tried to talk about that for 24 hours [after allowing 48 first-half points vs. Merrimack Saturday night]," added Lawson. "
"I won't miss playing them," said Bryant coach Max Good, whose program is making the jump to Division 1 next season. The Bulldogs were the last team to beat Bentley in the regular season (February 2006).
"They are just very, very good," he said. "I just have total admiration for their coaches and their players."
Abdul-Ali gave the Falcons their first double-figure cushion, 48-37, knocking in a miss by Dowling. And when Mike Quinn buried a three for a 51-37 advantage, Good quickly signaled for a timeout.
Attacking the basket, Bentley closed out the first half with an 8-2 run to build a 32-25 lead. Jason Westrol powered in a turnaround on the left baseline, Dowling double-pumped one in from the left block, and Fritsch (8 first-half points) floated in one of his patented turnaround jumpers.
Assumption 52, Saint Rose 51 - With senior Corey Diethorn delivering a 15-point, 14-rebound performance, the Greyhounds advanced to their first Regional final since 2001 by beating their Northeast-10 rival.
"As he goes, we go," said Assumption senior captain Greg Twomey of Diethorn after the Greyhounds rallied from a 3-point halftime deficit.
The Greyhounds took the lead for good, 37-34, on Diethorn's three with 10:39 left. His free throw with 11 seconds left gave Assumption a 52-49 lead, and Saint Rose's Will Monica rimmed out a three before Evan Lane scored inside with a second left.
Senior forward Mike Foti hit three treys on his way to 15 points for Assumption.
NE-10 Player of the Year Steve Dagostino led Saint Rose (23-8) with 15 points and Lane added 14 points and 14 boards.