March 12, 2022 

Patriot League notebook: American and Bucknell rise to the top

Which team has the edge headed into the championship?

American and Bucknell each posted convincing victories in the semifinals to advance to the Patriot League championship game. Bucknell dispatched Navy and ended the Mids’ surprising playoff run. American dissected a talented but unsettled Boston University team to keep its undefeated league home winning streak alive and kicking.

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Can Taylor O’Brien bookend her Bison career with championships or will Jade Edwards help the Eagles break through for the first time since 2017-18? Head coaches Megan Gebbia (American) and Trevor Woodruff (Bucknell) are two of the best coaches in the league. Is there an edge for one in this match-up? Let’s dive in today’s notebook into the details of what’s ahead in a tactical showdown for all the marbles:

Mirror, mirror, on the wall…….

It’s not the differences or varying approaches to offense or defense that make this championship match-up so intriguing—it’s the similarities that stand out between American and Bucknell. What’s at the core of two teams that seem to mirror each other’s strengths and habits? It’s coaching.

Coaching matters. Culture-building, practice habits, discipline in execution and game-planning are just some of the pieces of the puzzle that must coalesce into a contending team as the season unfolds.

Down the stretch run of a season, coaching reveals itself, reflecting program values and habits established well before a team takes the court together on the first day of practice. Near a season’s end, those long-developed core principles and standards get magnified on the bigger stages; it’s why some teams seem to implode while others show resolve in big moments or fall to the side when a lack of developed depth is exposed.

American and Bucknell arrive to their big moment led by mentors with similar approaches who both bounced back after a COVID impacted season re-directed their best-laid plans a season ago.

Bucknell Head coach Trevor Woodruff is headed to the Patriot League championship in his third season after being named the Coach of the Year in each of the previous two seasons. He’ll face off against American University Head coach Megan Gebbia, widely regarded as one of the top coaches in the league. Photo credit: Marc Hagemeier/Bucknell Athletic Communications

Teacher, teacher

Both coaches in this match-up are excellent teachers of the game who demand discipline from their groups and enjoy seeing their respective philosophies play out on the court. Last season, due to COVID delays and shutdowns, core elements on offense and defense suffered for both American and Bucknell due to a lack of on-court teaching time.

A year ago, the Eagles’ motion offense could never get fully untracked due to a shortage of repetitions. The Bison vaunted defense played a game of lost and found with its rotational rhythm that ultimately cost the program a defeat to eventual champion Lehigh.

Each program has risen to the top with a full season back in the gym and arrives at a familiar place—the championship. American has reached the final eight times while Bucknell has earned a trip on six occasions. The last appearance in the title game for both programs was in 2019 when the Bison beat American 66-54 in Lewisburg. Gebbia squared off against former Bucknell mentor Aaron Roussell in that contest.

The court is a classroom

Gebbia and Woodruff don’t share the same X’s and O’s, but find common ground with their respective programs’ defensive focus, work ethic, discipline and detailed game preparation. The championship will be a defensive game and a battle to see which group can find any kind of offensive rhythm against an opponent with both great defensive habits and sharp game-planning. Each squad pays attention to detail and executes a game plan with discipline.

What’s the most important thing to watch in the championship? In a contest between teams so closely matched and with similar commitment to the defensive end, it’s easy to say the game will be decided by the shot-making of elite players like O’Brien or Jade Edwards. But this game belongs to the better tactician. Watch the coaching.

Take your eye off the ball

This game is the rare occasion when you should take your eyes off the ball. Why? Because on both ends, what’s happening all around the ball is as much a part of the plan as where the ball is going—and even more determinative of the contest’s outcome.

The beauty of this championship is in the X’s and O’s and it’s between two of the best coaches and teams in terms of creating and executing game plans. How will American defend the post and weak-side action on an entry to forward Carly Krsul? When will they dig down or double the post? How will the Bison react?

What approach will Bucknell take to defending ball-screen action and how will American counter? Which group can withstand half-court defensive pressure and still have the patience to find the best shot?

The game within the game is going to tell the whole story. So, by all means take your eye off the ball for this showdown. Chances are, you’ll see everything you need to see.

Senior guard Jade Edwards was a freshman starter for the Eagles the last time they faced Bucknell in the league championship.
Photo credit: American Athletic Communications

PLAYERS TO WATCH: Bucknell’s Taylor O’Brien was a freshman when Bucknell defeated American to win the title in 2019. She played six minutes, grabbed two rebounds, two steals and didn’t score a point. In 2022, she’ll be the most important player on the court for the Bison.

The senior playmaker leads her team with 16.2 points and 6.6 rebounds per game. She’s really stepped up down the stretch. In the eight games since Buckell’s 56-48 loss to American on February 9, O’Brien has averaged 18.1 points per game and her squad has won seven of those eight contests, falling only to Boston University.

O’Brien is the barometer for the Bison. She’s the player for the Bison that can raise her teammates’ confidence level and, in a big game, that’s a vital role. In previous match-ups, she had 10 points in their 62-52 home win over the Eagles and 10 points in their loss in D.C. But she’s capable of exploding on offense. And it was her defensive energy with three steals and two blocks that sparked her squad’s win in Lewisburg.

The player to watch for American is in the post; two players to be exact: forwards Taylor Brown and Emily Johns. Brown and Johns need to be efficient on the offensive end and deny low-post space on the defensive end. They’re also the forwards with the most scoring punch—and that will be needed to get past the Bison.

Brown is second on the team in scoring at 10.0 points per game and shoots 43.1% from the floor. Johns averages 7.1 ppg but has played a larger role down the stretch, posting 11.6 ppg over her last five games.

Bucknell likes to play through the post and Brown and Johns will be key in denying post space against opponents Krsul and Emma Shaffer. Brown, in particular, will be a key factor to watch on the defensive end as Bucknell looks to attack American’s forwards. The Eagles need to win the battle of the forwards to win the game.

THE KEY STAT: Three-point shooting. These are the top two defensive teams in the league and scoring will be at a premium. Defending the three-point line will be especially key in a game where a couple of made threes could make the difference.

In Bucknell’s win at home against American, they shot 5-for-16 (40.0%) from distance. In their road loss, the Bison shot 3-for-18 (16.7%). Will the insertion of freshman three-point shooting specialist Isabella King (29-for-59 for 49.2%) into the starting line-up (started the last six games) change the dynamic?

American leads the league in three-point field defense, allowing just 24.4% from deep.

HOW AMERICAN WINS: The Eagles need to handle half-court defensive pressure with poise and run their motion offense with patience. When they rush or force they have had turnover issues this season. The team’s ball control is central to a successful game. They turned the ball over 22 times in their loss to Bucknell and just 14 in their win.

The Bison backcourt of Marly Walls and O’Brien is a tough defensive tandem. American will need to play with composure to allow ball and player movement to develop and stay away from turnovers that can convert into easy transition points for the Bison.

HOW BUCKNELL WINS: The Bison need to win the battle for points in the paint. The team’s post action and mid-range shooting game are central to victory. Expect to see coach Woodruff’s team attack the paint off the dribble and make use of their post players in the high and low post.

Bucknell’s defense will be its rock in this game, and if it can turn the Eagles over and convert in transition, it’ll take some pressure off its half-court game on offense.

THE SEASON MATCH-UP: Each team won at home this season. Bucknell bested American 62-52 in Lewisburg and the Eagles bounced back with a 56-48 win in D.C.

In Lewisburg, the Bison jumped out to an early lead and led by as many as 19 points in the first half and cruised to the 10-point win. They were led by freshman Cecelia Collins with a team-high 14 points.

At Bender Arena, the Eagles flipped a four-point halftime deficit to a commanding lead with a 20-9 third quarter effort. American shot 10-for-21 from the floor in the second half while limiting the Bison to an 8-for-30 performance.

American is 15-1 at Bender Arena this season and undefeated against Patriot League opponents. Head coach Gebbia is also 15-0 in league tournament games at home.

Final Standings:

(League record, overall record)

  1. Holy Cross (14-4, 20-10)
  2. American (13-5, 22-8)
  3. Boston University (12-6, 17-14)
  4. Bucknell (12-6, 23-8)
  5. Lehigh (11-7, 19-11)
  6. Army (10-8, 16-13)
  7. Lafayette (7-11, 12-18)
  8. Navy (5-13, 10-21)
  9. Colgate (4-14, 6-24)
  10. Loyola (MD) (2-16, 5-24)

Tune in to Patriot League action this week

March 13th
Bucknell University at American University @ 12:00 p.m. ET (CBS Sports Network)                        

Written by Todd Goclowski

Todd Goclowski currently covers the Patriot League for The Next. Goclowski brings 25 years of coaching experience to his role as an analyst and writer, including 19 years of coaching women's basketball in the NCAA at the D1 and D3 levels.

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