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Ellis Cooper of Northampton leads Franklin Pierce into NCAA Division II Tournament Elite 8

It’s been a long road back for Ellis Cooper. After missing nearly half his freshman season with a torn right patellar tendon, the Northampton native still harbored doubts about the injury going into his junior year.

Now, two years removed from surgery, Cooper has the Franklin Pierce University men’s basketball team on the verge of its first NCAA Division II Tournament Final Four appearance in program history.

Cooper, who graduated from Northampton High School in 2010, sank a pair of free throws in the waning moments to seal the top-seeded Ravens’ 57-52 win over the University of Bridgeport in the East Regional championship on Tuesday. His standout performance earned him the region’s most outstanding player award and earned his team a trip to Louisville, Ky., for an Elite 8 matchup with Metro State on Thursday.

“To get to be named the most valuable player of the tournament, it’s a great honor,” said Cooper, who’s averaged 14.2 points and 7.1 rebounds this season. “Especially (because) I had a lot of doubts coming into the season, recovering from surgery. To be able to do that and be able to have my teammates help get me through that, it means the world to me.”

After being ousted by Bloomfield College in the second round of last year’s tournament, Cooper is appreciative of what Franklin Pierce (24-8) has accomplished in its return to the postseason. Its three wins have nearly doubled the school’s all-time tournament win total of four coming in, and Cooper’s game-high 21 points in the Ravens’ 90-78 first-round win in a rematch with the Deacons on March 16 helped avenge that painful 2012 loss.

“To be able to continue to play as long as possible is awesome,” he said. “You don’t actually realize it until you step back and think that there’s only eight teams left. Being able to be one of those teams is just such an honor. It means a lot more than just a regular basketball game.”

For Franklin Pierce, part of the allure of its upcoming game is its storied location — Freedom Hall. The arena, which served as home for the University of Louisville from 1956 to 2010, has a long basketball history.

“I was actually talking to one of my teammates, and I didn’t realize that Freedom Hall is where Louisville” played, he said. “To be able to play in a place like that and understand the atmosphere that it is to play in a place like Louisville is like, crazy. It’s not something you can prepare yourself for, so I’ll be so much more shocked and so much more excited once I actually do get there.”

Cooper said that when the Ravens tip off with the Roadrunners (30-2) at noon on Thursday, he and his teammates will be focused on the task at hand.

“You have seven out of the eight one seeds that are actually in the Elite 8 right now, (so) you have to play your best basketball,” he said. “It’s not a game where you can play 75 percent, you have to go 100 percent or nothing, because it is all the top teams.

“We feel we’re versatile enough that we can play our game at any level against anybody,” Cooper added. “They’re 30-2, but a record is just a record, it’s just a number.”

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