BANGOR, Maine — The road to the 2017 NCAA Division III tournament for any North Atlantic Conference men’s basketball team will go through Newman Gymnasium.

The Husson Eagles earned the No. 1 seed and right to host the conference semifinals and championship game in emphatic fashion Saturday, outgunning second-place Castleton (Vermont) University from the opening whistle for an 85-59 victory.

“This is definitely first on the list, but we’re focused on getting that national win that we came up short on last year,” said Husson senior guard Raheem Anderson, who scored a game-high 24 points, including 16 during the game’s first seven minutes, as coach Warren Caruso’s club raced out to a 23-7 lead.

“But it’s one step at a time. It’s a good feeling to have locked into first place, and now we want to go on and take the next step in a couple of weeks and go from there,” said Anderson.

Husson (17-6 overall, 14-2 NAC) shot 50 percent (15 of 30) from beyond the 3-point arc, with Anderson and senior forward Eli Itkin each making 4 of 6 tries and freshman guard Jake Black and junior guard Mitch Worcester adding two apiece from long range.

“As a team we always try to challenge each other out there on the court,” said Itkin, who finished with 16 points and nine rebounds. “So to see Rah start with that high an intensity, me and Mitch have to go out there and keep up with it so it sets a good bar for us to go out there and perform.”

Worcester and senior guard Alonzo McCain each scored 10 points while sophomore forward Justin Martin had eight rebounds and three blocked shots for Husson, which has regular-season games left at Thomas College of Waterville on Wednesday and at home against UMaine-Farmington on Feb. 18.

Castleton (15-7, 10-6 NAC) was led by freshman guard Pavin Parrish, who came off the bench to score 20 points. No other Spartan scored more than six points as Husson limited Castleton to 37 percent (22 of 59) shooting from the field and forced 15 turnovers.

“Caruso pretty much emphasizes defense, defense,” said Itkin. “We want to be able to label ourselves a defensive team and in the past games we hadn’t really shown that so we wanted to prove to coach that we could do what we needed to do.”

Anderson, who made just 8 of 21 shots during Husson’s 70-45 win over Green Mountain College on Friday, came out on fire against Castleton, which lost to the Eagles in overtime during their earlier meeting in Vermont on Jan. 20.

The 6-foot-1 guard from Miramar, Florida, made his first six shots in the rematch — including four from 3-point land — while leading Husson to a 47-24 halftime lead.

“I felt like I had a rough shooting night last night so I was just trying to find a rhythm,” he said. “I knew Castleton was a much stronger team and we wanted to get out ahead of them early.”

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Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...