March 14, 2021 

Patriot League notebook: Championship ready to tip; what to expect, and keys to the game

Boston University is playing in its first Patriot League championship. How can the Terriers beat Lehigh?

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Graphic courtesy of the Patriot League

It’s been the shortest season in the longest year. More of a saga than a season, but a story that will deliver a happy ending for both the league and the last team standing when it’s done. Championship Sunday has arrived for the Patriot League.

How did we get here? The league and its teams have overcome delays and quarantines, limited practice opportunities, and positive tests. In the last weekend of the regular season, the league also adjusted the championship format to include all teams instead of the top eight and modified its seeding rules. The old NCAA tourney mantra “survive and advance” morphed into “adapt and survive.” Not everyone made it to the finish line.

The road to the championship has had its share of off-ramps: Navy’s campaign ended abruptly on its last weekend with positives in its Tier 1 group; Colgate shut its season down because of a lack of available players due to injury; COVID protocols kept Bucknell from competing for 35 days before it entered the playoffs; Loyola (MD) had its games postponed or canceled 11 times.

Every team has experienced the impact of the pandemic. Enduring COVID testing and the uncertainty that comes with it took its toll on players and coaches, and the final game arrives with both a sense of relief and excitement.

Graphic by Spencer Nusbaum

Fourth-seed Lehigh heads to two-seed Boston for the championship as each look to take care of unfinished business. The end is the beginning, as both are back exactly where they were a year ago when the coronavirus shut everything down: in Boston, ready to face off in a playoff game. Last year, it was a semifinal and neither walked away with the result they were seeking.

It’s ‘game on’ this go-round. So let’s break down each team’s championship chances, how they got here, and the keys to victory. Here’s what you need to know and watch for in the big game:

Boston University cruises past American to advance to the championship; how did they do it?

A blistering second-quarter shooting performance sparked a 15-0 run over a six-minute stretch that sunk the upset-minded American Eagles in the semifinal, 72-51. BU shot 11-for-16 (68.7%) in the frame to put the game out of reach. The Terriers are making their first appearance in a Patriot League championship game thanks to several season-high individual performances.

Sydney Johnson poured in a season-best 23 points behind a 5-for-6 effort from three-point range while sophomore guard Emily Esposito added 16 points, her high mark this year. On the boards, forward Maren Durant grabbed a season-high 14 rebounds.

The top-shooting team in the league is heating up at the right time. The Terriers are 20-for-36 (55.5%) from the three-point range in the playoffs and shot 28-for-54 (51.9%) overall versus American. Can Lehigh slow their attack in the championship?

The Mountain Hawks allow 67.6 points per game and teams have shot 40.4% from the floor against them. Will Lehigh take a page from Holy Cross and Army—the only teams to defeat BU this season—and go zone against the hottest shooting team in the playoffs?

Lehigh upsets Bucknell on the way to the league championship; how did they do it?

Lehigh enters the final after completing a dramatic 63-54 win over Bucknell in Lewisburg. It was all about balance for the Mountain Hawks, led by five players in double figures. They lost all four previous contests against the undefeated Bison this season but a maturing defense stepped up when it counted and the offense came from inside and out. The Bison failed to reach the 60-point mark for the first time this year.

It was the toughness of point guard Clair Steele and the resiliency of forward Emma Grothaus that anchored the victory. Steele ran the offense with efficiency and bailed out every difficult offensive possession through her penetration or work to get open under pressure. Her steadying presence was the difference-maker from the two close losses to the Bison in the regular season. She hit the game’s opening shot, a three-pointer, and you could feel the confidence of the team rise. She finished with 10 points. Her presence made her team play with more patience and poise on offense.

Grothaus led the way in the middle of the floor—the place where all five match-ups with the Bison were decided this year. The junior forward put up a double-double with 12 points and 14 rebounds—a career-high. Lehigh won the battle of points in the paint, 34 to 28. It was the first time in their match-ups this year that they edged the Bison in that category and their highest output in the lane against them this season.

Lehigh led for most of the game and used its balanced attack to keep the Bison at bay in the fourth quarter. Mary Clougherty scored 13 points, Frannie Hottinger added 12, and freshman Mackenzie Kramer had 10.

This is Lehigh’s first time in the tournament championship since 2015 and the program is seeking its fourth title, the first one since 2009-2010. Can they close the deal in the final?

PATRIOT LEAGUE TOURNAMENT CHAMPIONSHIP GAME

Photo credit: (L) Frannie Hottinger via Hannahally Photography (R) Katie Nelson via Kevin Murray

No. 2 Boston University (12-2) vs. No. 4 Lehigh Mountain Hawks (9-5)

The key for Boston University: Shot selection. The Terriers are the league’s top shooting team. A juggernaut from three-point range? Hardly. Although they enter the game on a shooting streak from deep, they finished the regular season as seventh in the league with a 30.4% shooting percentage. What they do best is get great mid-range and inside shots and, as the league’s top offensive rebounding team, they get good second shots. They need to attack inside and also find those extra opportunities to win this game. Forwards Maren Durant (7.2 rpg.) and Riley Childs (8.0 rpg.) are the key.

Three-pointers get a lot of attention after hot-shooting games from distance—and they have been incredible from behind the arc in the playoffs. But it’s the work inside that makes BU a great team and an efficient scoring unit. And their top two forwards? Durant shoots 67.8% (59-for-87) and Childs shoots 50.7% (35-for-69).

Those posts are the key on the boards, too. BU has shot above 50.0% from the field in six of their 14 contests this year. Lehigh has allowed only one team to reach that mark—Bucknell shot 51.5% in its 80-66 win over the Mountain Hawks back in January. Something’s got to give. The rebounding battle at the forward positions is the key, especially at the offensive end. The Terriers have been outrebounded just three times this season, most recently in the quarterfinals by Lafayette. The Leopards fell, 74-68, but won the battle of the boards by five in a tight, back-and-forth game. If the Terriers get efficient play from their forwards and win the rebounding war, they’ll be cutting down the nets.

The key for Lehigh: Not falling in love with the three. In its semifinal win over Bucknell, Lehigh shot just 5-for-20 from behind the arc. The 20 attempts matched a season-low for three-point shots, equaling an earlier output against the Bison. Less is more for the Mountain Hawks from distance in the final. Why? They need to establish their presence in the paint and continue to attack the middle of the floor. They’ve found their formula and need to use it.

They average 10 made threes a game, and the five against Bucknell represents the team’s worst output of the season. But they beat the league’s best team on the road and led the contest for an incredible 88% of the game. The reason? They owned the middle of the floor and they’ll need to do it again versus BU to win.

The Terrier 2-3 zone invites an outside game and Lehigh must refuse the invitation. Grothaus and Hottinger are keys to scoring inside against the zone. As a group, they must continue to attack through the high-post and short-corner areas. If they can establish a scoring game inside and shrink the zone, they’ll have the kick-outs for threes as the game develops. But they must look to penetrate the interior and take the game to Durant in the paint. For two hours, the lane will be the most desired real estate in Boston outside of the North End.

Player to watch for Boston University: Point guard Katie Nelson. She’s made her case as the top point guard in the league. She runs the Terrier offense with precision and demonstrates a high basketball I.Q. game after game. She’s efficient and hits big shots (50.8% from the field, 43.5% from the three-point range). Now that the moment has arrived for BU, and the lights are bright for the championship game, expect Nelson to step up. The senior leads the team in scoring at 12.2 points per game, and she’s the one to watch.

Player to watch for Lehigh: Senior shooting guard, Mary Clougherty. She’s come off the bench in both playoff games against Holy Cross and Bucknell, but that’s the best role for this willing shooter who can and will take a tough shot in a big moment. She lifts her team’s energy when she enters the game. She’s made nine starts this season, but the team has won four of five when she comes off the bench. Clougherty is second on the team in minutes played at 27.7 minutes per game.

Aggressiveness wins the big games, and Clougherty will look for her shot. Her activity and decision-making will be crucial against the Terrier guards. She’s averaging 12.5 points and 4.1 rebounds per game. Keep your eyes on her when she checks in. If she hits those first few shots, she’s going to be the one to watch throughout. She’s capable of putting up points in bunches.

How Boston University wins: The Terriers need to play through their forwards. Lehigh will show both a 2-3 zone and man-to-man defense and post touches are the key against both. They must make the Lehigh defense react to Childs in the high post and Durant in the low post or short corner. If they can consistently get attacking passes into their bigs, they’ll really test the Mountain Hawks.

The last time these teams met was just over a year ago on Feb. 26th in Boston. Two free throws from Durant with less than a second to go gave the Terriers a 48-47 win. Expect a game with much more pace and scoring this time around, but it’s the discipline of the head coach Marisa Moseley’s squad that wins them this game. They know when to slow it down and how to execute their sets in the half-court–and attacking Lehigh inside is how the Terriers will win it.

How Lehigh pulls the upset: They need to take BU out of their disciplined sets and make them reactive to their defense. In their two losses this season (to Army and Holy Cross), BU was ineffective versus zone coverages. The Terriers are a disciplined team, and keeping them off balance through the use of zone or a defensive wrinkle is key to pulling the upset.

On offense, if Lehigh can demonstrate the same patience they showed in their semifinal win over Bucknell, they’ll walk away with the trophy. It’s tough to win a championship with a ‘pace and space’ game for forty minutes. Ball movement and patience in their execution with motion offense are vital. When BU extends pressure at the top of the zone, Lehigh has to resist the temptation to speed up its possessions.

Where to watch: Lehigh at Boston University @4:00p.m. ET on CBS Sports Network.

Written by Todd Goclowski

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