All eyes on the prize: Patriot League basketball playoffs preview

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Michael Caruso & Elise Covert , Contributing Writer, & Sports Co-Editor

Men’s

One look at the Patriot League stats and standings will tell you just how dominant the Bison men’s basketball team has been this season. The Bison are currently first in the standings with a league record of 13-3 and an overall record of 21-8. This is the 13th time in program history that the team has reached the 20-win milestone. Looking to increase that total, they will face off against in-conference opponent Navy on Feb. 25 to close out the regular season. And having already clinched the regular season championship, the Orange and Blue have their sights set on a Patriot League Tournament championship, which would grant them an automatic bid to NCAA March Madness.

Behind the dominant play all year from players such as Zach Thomas ’18 and Nana Foulland ’18, the team shows no signs of slowing down heading into the postseason. Thomas is currently the third leading scorer in the Patriot League averaging 15.8 points per game, and Foulland is first in the league in blocks per game at two and second in the league in rebounding with eight boards per game.

“We try and be as consistent as possible with our energy on both ends of the floor.  In order to continue our success into the playoffs we just need to stay focused and execute our gameplan,” Thomas said.

Led by head coach Nathan Davis, the Bison have proven to be a championship-caliber team all year. Although the team is strong defensively, their greatest attribute comes on the offensive end with their ball movement, and taking care of the ball is something Davis wants the team to pride themselves on if they want to be successful in the playoffs. The Bison are currently third in the league in assist to turnover ratio, so they will look to take advantage of every offensive opportunity for the rest of the season.

“Taking care of the ball will be vital to our success moving forward. In tournament play, the team that gets the most good shots usually wins. That means limiting turnovers so that you get field goal attempts and sharing the ball with one another so you get quality shot attempts,” Davis said.

Because of their strong offensive game, the Bison are first in Patriot League rankings for points per game this season with 75.3 on 48 percent field goal shooting, which is presently second in the league. Being able to find the open man and take advantage of gaps in the opponent’s defense is something the Bison are notorious for. Stephen Brown ’18 is third in the league in assists per game with 4.7.

“[Ball movement] is very important to us. When the ball is moving and getting each other open by moving without the ball, it makes us hard to guard defensively because we can score in many different ways,” Brown said. With the stellar backcourt of Brown and Kimbal Mackenzie ’19, it becomes very easy for the offense to flow as a unit.  

Although the Bison has dominated league play this year, Lehigh has proven to give the team a run for its money as they handed the Bison two of their three in-conference losses. However, the Orange and Blue is one of only three teams in the entire league to have two scorers in the top ten with Foulland and Thomas, challenging opposing coaches to form a successful game-plan when facing the Bison.

In order to succeed, the Orange and Blue must utilize the offensive threats of Foulland and Thomas, while at the same time finding sparks off the bench from players like John Azzinaro ’17 and DJ MacLeay ’17. Foulland emphasizes the necessity for dominating the glass in order to contribute to both offensive and defensive success.

“We plan to continue that aspect by bringing a sense of urgency to each game.  It is win or go home so we cannot come out to slow starts, and rebounding the ball well will be the key,” Foulland said.

The Orange and Blue have clinched the number one seed in the Patriot League this year for its third year in a row and the sixth time in the last seven years. This makes them the clear top seed in the Patriot League Men’s Basketball Tournament. They’ll begin their playoff run with a quarterfinal game on March 2 at Sojka Pavilion.

Women’s

After a heartbreaking exit in the semifinals of the Patriot League Tournament in 2016, the Bison women’s basketball team returned with a vengeance for the 2016-2017 season. The expectations were set high in preseason polls, where the Orange and Blue were favored by a large margin to win the league.

With a current 24-game home winning streak, the Bison has proven themselves worthy of those high expectations. With only two games remaining in the regular season schedule, the Bison sit tied with Navy atop the Patriot League standings. They have a conference record of 13-2, with an overall record of 21-5. This marks the second consecutive season and the fifth time in program history that the women have hit the 20-win mark.

The Orange and Blue have consistently asserted themselves as the team to beat this year with their aggressive defense and efficient offense. Key players for the Bison women’s team include Claire DeBoer ’17, Kaitlyn Slagus ’19, Sune Swart ’17, and Kate Walker ’19. DeBoer ranks second in the league for field goal percentage, DeBoer, Slagus, and Swart rank in the leagues’ top 10 for free throw percentage, and Walker ties 1oth for average 3-pointers per game.

For the Bison, the focus all season has been strong, smart, and relentless defensive possessions. The Orange and Blue are the league-leaders in scoring defense, only allowing an average of 56.3 points per game. Leading up to each game, the team tirelessly practices a game plan to stop the threats of each specific opponent. The players don’t expect this approach to change leading into the postseason, as the Bison can’t afford to take games for granted en route to a championship.

“As always, we are just focusing on preparing for one team at a time. We have to keep focusing on how to defend each team that we face,” Swart said.

One key to the success of the team’s notorious defensive efforts is rebounding. Slagus is the team’s leading rebounder, averaging 9.3 boards per game. These numbers put her second in the league in average rebounding among all players this season and leading the league in defensive rebounds. She recalls going back to basics on rebounding early in the season, and the focus on the fundamentals has certainly paid off. The team has out-rebounded opponents by an average of 8.6 rebounds per game, the most in the league, allowing them to limit opponents’ second-chance opportunities.

“When someone does miss box out, the team does a good job at refocusing them into making sure they get the box out the next time,” Slagus said. “Continuing to dominate the boards will be key in determining how well we do in the tournament.”

This laser-sharp focus on defense is not to say that the Bison are short of offensive threats. The Orange and Blue have one of the most efficient offenses in the league as they are number three in scoring with 66.2 points per game. Their 43.5 percent field goal accuracy and 75.6 percent free throw conversion are also league-leading numbers. DeBoer leads the Bison in scoring, averaging 16.1 points per game, placing her as the second highest scorer in the league. Despite her offensive success individually, DeBoer still credited strong defense as the key enabling the Bison to put up the scoring numbers they have.

“I think the key to our success has been how well we’ve moved the ball around and played together as a team. While this is true, we need to continue working on limiting turnovers and finishing defensive positions in order to give us the best chance to win in the tournament,” DeBoer said.

Head coach Aaron Roussell echoed DeBoer’s emphasis on team play and ball movement.

“We have really been focused on playing with energy on the defensive end and moving the ball well on offense. We have some very talented scorers on this team and when we share the ball well we are incredibly dangerous,” Roussell said.

Remaining on the Orange and Blue’s schedule are a pivotal road matchup against Navy on Feb. 25 and a home game against Lafayette on March 1. The contest at the Naval Academy will likely determine which of the two teams will claim the number one seed in the Patriot League Tournament.

After the regular season has concluded, the Bison will look to make a deep run in the Patriot League playoffs. The Bison have clinched a home quarterfinal game at Sojka Pavilion, as they continue their search for their first League Championship since 2008.

“As a team we are really excited to be wrapping up the regular season and to start preparing for the tournament. We have three great seniors; Claire, Megan, and Sune, who have turned this program around so we want to make sure we give them everything we have to try to have them leave with the championship,” Slagus said.

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