March 9, 2024 

Patriot League notebook: First-round playoff preview and game breakdowns

Is a champion lurking in this weekend's play-in games?

The Patriot League kicks off post-season action this weekend following the most closely-contested finish in conference history. When the final horns sounded around the league, Holy Cross claimed the top spot ahead of a logjam of teams with tiebreakers in every direction.

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How uncertain was the finish? Seedings one through nine were undetermined heading into Wednesday’s regular season finale. In the end, three teams finished tied for second and the next four finished tied for fifth place. 

The precarious result gives fans an opening weekend with a pair of intriguing first-round games.  Two programs with championship legacies face off in a playoff rematch of the 2022 championship final. Then, can the winner of the Bucknell–American showdown ride that momentum past top-seed Holy Cross in the quarterfinals?

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American already has a win over the Crusaders this season, while Bucknell fell to the defending champs in overtime the last time the teams met on Feb. 21. No matter how things play out, the Crusaders will face an unusually difficult quarterfinal round for a one-seed. And fans in Worcester haven’t exactly forgotten their heartbreaking buzzer-beater loss to Navy as the one-seed in 2022.

Navy and Lafayette meet in the other first-round game with the winner to face second-seed Colgate. The Mids are on a three-game winning streak, playing physical defense and taking a youthful line-up into the postseason. Will they rise to meet the moment?

Lafayette landed at the bottom of the conference but not before posting two impressive home-and-home sweeps over Army and American. The Leopards’ mix of zone defense has upended a few offenses this year. Can head coach Kia Damon-Olson’s squad capitalize on a matchup against a young Navy team?

It’s been a strange, streaky season of upsets and surprises and there’s no reason to think the playoffs will be anything different. There’s a Patriot League champion out there somewhere and we may get a look at them this weekend.

Let’s crunch the numbers and take a look at each match-up in this week’s notebook:

Bucknell freshman forward Ashley Sofilkanich is having an impact season for the Bison. (Photo credit: Vinnie Lucia)

A battle of former champions highlights opening weekend

This weekend’s American-Bucknell matchup brings together two programs with a history and tradition of winning: the Bison own four league championships and the Eagles have three — the last of which came against Bucknell in 2021–22.

It’s not your usual first round play-in game, and it feels like a must-win for both.

First round winners are not usually considered a threat to ultimately land in the final but each of these teams has shown glimpses of their former championship form along the way.

Bucknell had won seven of its previous nine before dropping its season finale to Navy — one of those two losses was a buzzer-beater defeat to Colgate and the other an overtime loss to first-place Holy Cross. The Bison have been flying under the radar a bit, but they have been rolling.

Can they make a run to the final? Absolutely.

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What’s been going well for the Bison down the stretch? The post play tandem of 6’3 freshman star Ashley Sofilkanich and 6’4 sophomore Grace Sullivan (8.9 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 52.7% FG) has anchored the interior and produced more consistency on both ends of the floor over the last month.

Sofilkanich is a star-in-the-making. The New Jersey product has started 26 games in her first season and is posting big numbers: 12.3 points and 6.3 rebounds per game in 28.6 minutes an outing.

She’s also an impact defender with a program-best 56 blocks, and had a team-high 13 rebounds in Bucknell’s 61-47 home win over American to help them earn a split of the season series.

But American has been streaky, too. Which Eagle team is going to show up in Lewisburg this weekend? If the squad who began conference play by winning its first four of six games suits up on Saturday, Bucknell is facing an uphill battle.

American’s 73-70 win over Loyola on the last day of league play not only prevented the Greyhounds from a regular-season title but also broke a six-game losing skid. Who did the Eagles defeat before that losing streak began? First-place Holy Cross.

Capable of a playoff run? Yes. Consistent? No.

Players to watch: American’s Emily Johns and Lauren Stack versus the tandem of Sullivan and Sofilkanich is an area to watch but expect the defensive game plans to neutralize most of the interior play. The winner of this game is the squad that can get the best of the backcourt matchups and convert on the perimeter.

Bucknell’s player to watch is junior guard Emma Theodorsson. She leads the Bison in scoring (13.0 ppg) and is the wing most capable of posting a big number on offense. The Bison are most dangerous when their backcourt tandem of Blake Matthews (6.1 ppg) and Ashley O’Connor (5.7 ppg) are putting up enough points to take the pressure off of Theodorsson.

O’Connor posted 18 points in the team’s earlier home win over American and Matthews has been averaging 12.3 points per game over the last three contests. Keep your eyes on the shooting of the Bucknell guards.

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American faces the same challenge of finding a consistent perimeter threat heading into the playoffs. The player to watch in the Eagle backcourt is Anna LeMaster. The junior has started the last eight games and had 16 points (7-for-12 from the field) and nine rebounds in a hard-fought win over Loyola to close out the regular season schedule. LeMaster is going to have to hit shots for the Eagles to win.

The key stat: Points in the paint. In American’s home win, the Eagles dominated inside, outscoring the Bison 42-12 in the paint and 58-47 on the scoreboard. In Lewisburg, Bucknell won that battle 22-14, and the game, 61-47. Who’s converting around the rim and who’s missing the easy ones?

How American wins: Win the turnover battle. The Eagles force 16.6 turnovers per game in league play — good for second best. But they commit a lot too, next to last in the league with 15.2 a game. They’re facing a Bucknell team that is stingy about turning over, committing just 12.5 per game — good for third in the league. They’ll only be in position for the upset if they can win the ball control battle.

How Bucknell wins: The Bison need to stay in their comfort zone: play inside-out, be efficient on offense and dig in on defense. The team can’t focus on a single area to go get a win. Bucknell’s strength is in its discipline, and winning means an across-the-board approach on both ends of the floor. They’ll need ball control in the halfcourt offense and focused defensive rotations to pull off the win.

If there is a focus to highlight, it’s defense in the paint. Bucknell must corral Johns and Stack inside and force the Eagles to convert from deep. If they do, the win is within reach.

Bottom line: It’s going to be physical inside. The question is, who is going to get the best of that style of play?

Lafayette senior guard Makayla Andrews leads her Leopards to Annapolis for a showdown with Navy this weekend. The Second-Team All-Patriot League selection tops her squad with 13.4 points per game. (Photo credit: Lafayette Athletic Communications)

Can Navy turn the corner behind its star freshmen?

You can understand if Navy fans let out a long exhale after the team’s 55-49 win over Bucknell in their final regular season contest. The win moved the program’s league record to an even 9–9 and earned it a home game for the first round of playoffs. It may not seem too shiny, but it’s been a long climb to reach .500 and an encouraging sign for a young team that finished 1–29 overall just a year ago. It’s the first time Navy has reached the .500 or better mark in league play since the COVID-shortened season of 2020–21.

Freshmen guards Zanai Barnett-Gay (Patriot League Rookie of the Year) and Kyah Smith (12.9 ppg, 3.4 apg) are leading the turnaround in Annapolis, improving from a 1–17 league record last season to a 9–9 mark that left them just two games off the top spot this year.

How do they match up versus Lafayette?

The Mids swept the season series in two close contests that were more grind-it-out than shoot-out — and that fits Navy’s late-season style perfectly. Defense has been head coach Tim Taylor’s emphasis down the stretch of the season and his young squad is responding.

Consistent offense remains a challenge for Navy. In conference play, the Mids are posting just 59.4 points per game but their defense has been improving. In the last three games, including a 58-49 win over Lafayette, Navy has held opponents to 51.6 points and just 32.0% shooting from the field.

Players to watch: Navy’s freshman sensation Barnett-Gay is the most important player on the floor. She impacts a game on both ends of the court and the Leopard defense will have to account for her ability to penetrate the zone or go by her defender in man-to-man coverage. The first-year Mid leads her squad in scoring (18.3 ppg), rebounding (6.4 rpg), steals (84) and minutes played (34.8). The only thing that can slow Barnett-Gay is foul trouble. She leads her team with 3.4 fouls per game and has fouled out of three games this season, reaching four fouls nine times.

Senior guard and All-Patriot League Second Team selection Makayla Andrews is the player to watch for the Leopards. She’s capable of carrying a bulk of the scoring load for her group and she’ll need to. Navy hasn’t slowed her down much (12-for-25 combined) in either matchup but it did force Andrews into six turnovers in its most recent contest. If Andrews has the impact game she’s capable of posting, the Leopards can pull this one out.

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The key stat: Turnovers. Navy swept the season series in two low-scoring contests and won the turnover battle each time. The Navy defense forced the Leopards to commit 20 turnovers in its most recent matchup two weeks ago, a 58-49 win. 

Lafayette’s dynamic backcourt duo of Andrews and Abby Antognoli combined to commit 11 of the 20 turnovers. The Leopards must succeed in navigating the defensive pressure of the Navy guards and avoid giving away possessions or allowing easy points in transition.

How Lafayette wins: Limit penetration and transition scores. Lafayette needs to slow the pace and make it a halfcourt game. Head coach Kia Damon-Olson’s defensive scheme has to force Navy to be a three-point shooting team. To do this, the Leopards should employ the effective mix of the zone and man-to-man they’ve used in prior matchups to keep the Mids off balance. They must maintain gap integrity on defense and give early help to slow down the Navy attack off the bounce. Challenging Navy to hit three-pointers is the path to advancing to the quarterfinals, as the Mids are ninth in the league in three-point shooting at 27.8%.

How Navy wins: Defense. The Mids are coming off one of their most complete defensive efforts in their season finale, a 55-49 road win over Bucknell. Against the Bison, they lost the turnover battle and were edged on the offensive boards but still found a way to grind out stops in the face of those extra possessions.

The Navy defense needs to keep the tandem of Andrews (13.4 ppg, 42.6% FG) and Antognoli (12.0 ppg, 3.2 apg) in check. If the Mids can keep either from a break-out scoring game, they’ll have a better chance to advance.

Bottom line: It’s Navy’s freshmen guards versus Lafayette’s upperclassmen backcourt. Will experience count?

Navy’s Zanai Barnett-Gay is the 2023-24 Patriot League Rookie of the Year and leads a young Mids team into the playoffs. (Photo credit: Navy Athletics/Phil Hoffmann)

2023-24 Women’s Basketball All-Patriot League Major Awards

Player of the Year: Caitlin Weimar, Boston University, Sr., F

Defensive Player of the Year: Caitlin Weimar, Boston University, Sr., F

Rookie of the Year: Zanai Barnett-Gay, Navy, Fr., G

Coach of the Year: Danielle O’Banion, Loyola Maryland

Final Patriot League Standings:

(League record, overall record)

  1. Holy Cross (11-7, 17-12)
  2. Colgate (10-8, 17-12)
  3. Boston University (10-8, 18-11)
  4. Loyola (MD) (10-8, 15-14)
  5. Lehigh (9-9, 17-12)
  6. Army (9-9, 12-16)
  7. Navy (9-9, 13-16)
  8. Bucknell (9-9, 12-17)
  9. American (8-10, 10-19)
  10. Lafayette (5-13, 10-19)

Tune in to Patriot League action this week

(Note: Unless noted, all games are streamed through ESPN+ for a subscription fee. Click here for the video link to all league competition. All times are EST.)

First Round March 9th

No. 10 Lafayette at No. 7 Navy @1p.m.

No. 9 American at No. 8 Bucknell @7p.m.

Quarterfinal Round March 11th

Winner of 7/10 at No. 2 Colgate @ 6:00 p.m.

No. 6 Army at No. 3 Boston University @ 6:10 p.m.

Winner of 8/9 at No. 1 Holy Cross @ 7:00 p.m.

No. 5 Lehigh at No. 4 Loyola (MD) @ 7:10 p.m.

Semifinal Round March 14th
No. 4/5 winner vs. No. 1/8-9 winner, TBA
No. 3/6 winner vs. No. 2/7-10 winner, TBA

Patriot League Championship Game March 17th
Championship game @ 12:00 p.m. (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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