January 12, 2022 

Patriot League notebook: Holy Cross upsets the defending champs

Can Holy Cross guard Avery LaBarbera be the Player of the Year?

If there’s a lesson to learn from week two of Patriot League conference play, it’s to expect the unexpected this season. The impact of COVID-19, the arrival of four new head coaches, and the reliance by several teams on freshmen in their rotations have set the course—and it’s been a bumpy ride.

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What’s so wild about week two? Bucknell got surprised again by a service academy, this time by Navy, before bouncing back with a win. Holy Cross upset preseason favorite Lehigh behind the dazzling play of senior guard Avery LaBarbera, and Lafayette snuck into the top half of the league with a 2-0 start. Let’s dive in and see what it means moving ahead. This week around the league:

Three reasons why Holy Cross’ Avery LaBarbera can be the Player of the Year

It’s early, but Avery LaBarbera should have your attention.

Holy Cross is off to a 2-0 league start and is 8-5 overall with an upset win in-hand over preseason favorite and defending champion Lehigh. The efforts of the senior playmaker have Crusader fans buzzing about a deep run during playoffs in a season that looks as wide-open at the top as it has ever been.

LaBarbera has been an impact player since she arrived in Worcester. But the senior floor general has found her stride as a leader and has emerged as one of the best players in the league. What’s the difference? Her game has matured. The fast-paced and attacking mindset is still there, but the choices are better as both a passer and shooter; her on-ball defense is more developed and she gambles less as a help defender.

Her court vision and passing ability have led to some eye-popping highlight assists, but the growth of her game now shows itself in the beauty of her seeking and finding the simplest attacking option she sees on the court and letting the highlight pass or shot find her.

LaBarbera carries the weight of both scorer and facilitator. When she’s on the court, you can almost see her calculate a passing angle, a cut, or the timing of how she wants to create a shot for a teammate or find the opening for herself. Right now, she’s doing it all.

Despite wearing multiple hats on offense, there’s a clearer focus to her game. In previous seasons, all the options flying through the mind of the playmaking point guard could cloud her decision-making, or invite a riskier or forced play. There’s still plenty of flash, but better execution.

This season, less is more—a lot more.

Last season, she was named to the All-Patriot League second team and all-defensive team. She’s playing an even larger role for Holy Cross this year.

By the numbers, LaBarbera’s early season performance is worthy of attention—and she’s doing it as the focus of every opponent’s defensive scout. The Crusaders’ fast start in conference play should make her a part of the discussion for Player of the Year. Three reasons why she deserves the nod:

Leadership. Holy Cross is LaBarbera’s team and the Crusaders will go as far as she can lead them—and so far, so good. She sets the tone on and off the court and, as point guard, plays the most important and challenging position in basketball. If Holy Cross can make a leap this year as a top-four team, she’ll deserve every consideration for the league’s top honor.

Need a last-minute shot to win the game? Check. An instinctual change of pace to focus on executing in the half-court? Done. When the coach needs a different voice in practice or the huddle to get everyone on the same page? Check and check.

Over the weekend, she scored 14 points in a pivotal third quarter in the Crusaders’ 64-53 win over Lehigh. LaBarbera’s clutch play turned a three-point deficit into a seven-point edge going into the fourth quarter. The senior played all 40 minutes and helped lead the charge on defense in the final frame to seal the upset.

LaBarbera pulls double-duty as the team’s best player and primary ball handler directing the offense—responsibilities when carried well demonstrate the leadership of the top player in the league.

She has the receipts. LaBarbera has the numbers—some notable numbers, too. She’s fourth in the league in scoring at 14.6 ppg, adding two three-pointers per game. More a scorer than a perimeter shooter, she takes on the role of generating the offense and has the Crusaders at fourth in the league in scoring at 61.2 per game.

There is no better rebounding guard in the conference right now. She’s sixth in the league in rebounding with 8.4 an outing and the only true guard in the top ten. Just 5’6, she’s pulled down double-digit rebounds seven times this season.

Defense has been the focus for head coach Maureen Magarity’s program, especially this year. Despite receiving accolades for her defense, it’s a growth area for the senior guard and she’s stepped up both her on-ball and help defense. She’s sixth in the league in takeaways with 1.8 per game.

She can take it, but can dish it out, too. LaBarbera is third in the league in assists, averaging 3.8 per contest.

She can hit the big shot. When Holy Cross needed a late bucket in a sluggish game earlier this season on the road against New Hampshire, LaBarbera turned a hustle play into a long distance three-pointer to beat the shot clock and give her team a one-point lead down the stretch.

The shot set up a heroic finishing touch a few possessions later as the senior drove the lane with seconds to play and sank a floater as the buzzer sounded for a 50-49 victory.

That big shot has been a turning point for the Crusaders, kicking off a streak of four wins in five games—the only loss coming on the road to the ACC’s University of Pittsburgh.

She has continued hitting big shots, most recently in her 30-point effort in Holy Cross’ upset of Lehigh.

American struggles against Boston University, again. What does it mean moving forward?

Terrier Sydney Johnson had 13 points and six assists to help Boston University to a convincing 69-46 win over American University.
Photo credit: Rich Gagnon

In a rematch of American’s last two playoff games, both losses, the American Eagles were looking for redemption in a tough road match-up with Boston University.

They didn’t find it.

The Eagles fell 69-46 and had no answer for BU’s imposing forward rotation of 6’4 Caitlin Weimar, 6’3 Maren Durant, and 6’0 Riley Childs. The Terriers won the rebounding battle 49-33 behind Weimar’s 18 boards and owned the paint on both ends of the floor.

What does it mean? It’s an early claim by Boston that the Terriers are a championship contender; they are deep and talented and can win inside or out. They dominated. For American, the defeat could turn into a crisis of confidence for the team’s big games down the stretch against the top half of the league.

Over the last two seasons, American has a combined 15 wins but just one victory against a team with a winning record—and that came this season in a 68-61 overtime win against the University of Vermont (7-6) in a game in which they trailed by 13 points in the fourth quarter.

The Eagles were not up to the task against BU and shot just 19-for-70 for 27.1% from the floor. The backdoor cuts and open jumpers they found in their previous game versus Colgate (2-13) were nowhere to be found. Preseason Player of the Year Jade Edwards struggled to a 3-for-17 performance for 10 points.

The result means head coach Megan Gebbia’s squad is going to have to develop its mental and physical toughness if they want to be a contender. The good news for American is that there are plenty of tests ahead to sharpen its edge. This week the Eagles face Holy Cross (8-5) and Bucknell (10-4).

Bucknell drops another but bounces back, what’s next?

Entering the 2021-22 season, head coach Trevor Woodruff’s squad had dropped just seven games in a remarkable stretch since his arrival in 2019. Beneath the surface of those defeats is a telling clue: too many threes.

In six of those seven losses coming into the season, Bucknell launched 22 or more three-point attempts. Last week, the Bison held an eight-point fourth quarter edge at home against Navy but faltered down the stretch and fell, 57-55. How many threes did they take? You guessed it: 22.

It was the program’s second consecutive loss and the first time Bucknell lost back-to-back games in league play since the 2016-2017 season. They were 5-for-22 from distance for 22.7%.

The bounce back came against Loyola (MD) as the defense forced 17 turnovers and the Bison cruised to a 62-42 win.  They also took 22 threes in the win, converting eight. Why so many threes? They aren’t getting the ball inside enough.

What’s next for the Bison? A focus on paint points and efficiency from deep. Worth watching is their ability to break down the opposing defenses moving forward.

Bucknell still leads the league in three-point shooting, converting 77-for-220 on the season for 35.0%, but six other conference teams have attempted more from distance. The team’s next opponent, Lehigh, has taken nearly double its attempts, firing up 413 shots from behind the arc.

It’s as much about Bucknell’s inconsistency in finding the attacking pass or drive in its offense as it is about the ability to shoot from distance. The team’s success from deep is about breaking down the defense and taking a quality shot. They aren’t a volume-shooting team like Lehigh, their focus is on efficiency.

Current Standings

(League record, overall record)

  1. Boston University (3-0, 7-7)
  2. Holy Cross (2-0, 8-5)
  3. Lafayette (2-0, 6-6)
  4. Lehigh (2-1, 10-4)
  5. Army (2-1, 7-5)
  6. American (1-1, 8-4)
  7. Bucknell (1-2, 10-4)
  8. Navy (1-3, 4-10)
  9. Loyola (MD) (0-2, 3-9)
  10. Colgate (0-4, 2-13)

What’s the can’t-miss match-up of the week?

Senior guard Taylor O’Brien leads Bucknell in a key showdown this week against the defending champion Lehigh Mountain Hawks.
Photo credit: Marc Hagemeier

Bucknell at Lehigh

Wednesday, January 12, 6 PM ET

This is a clash of league royalty who regularly compete for the crown and are both contenders this season. These programs have eight conference championships between them and have combined to win the last two titles.

The match-up features Preseason All-Patriot League team members in Bucknell’s Taylor O’Brien (17.9 ppg and 5.9 rpg) and Lehigh’s Frannie Hottinger (14.5 ppg and 6.7 rpg).

If familiarity breeds contempt, this one should have an edge to it. As members of last season’s Central Division, the squads had the unusual occasion to play five times. The game showcases the up-tempo offense of the Mountain Hawks—who own the league’s top scoring offense at 73.8 per game—and the disciplined defense of Bucknell, allowing just 56.2 an outing.

Keep your eye on the post battle between Lehigh’s Emma Grothaus and the Bison’s Carly Krsul. The points in the paint are key; post play and attacking scoring drives at the rim is the stat line that will show the winner.

The last meeting: March 11, 2021.The Mountain Hawks won, 63-54, in the league tournament semi-final. Bucknell was going for a season-sweep after winning all four match-ups in the regular season. The Bison entered the game unbeaten at 9-0 in a COVID-shortened schedule. Bucknell had won the previous nine games in the rivalry and the win was head coach Sue Troyan’s first in seven tries against Bucknell coach Trevor Woodruff.

Games postponed due to COVID-19

COVID-19 postponed one game last week:

Holy Cross at Lafayette (virus protocols with Lafayette)

Tune in to Patriot League action this week

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

January 12th

Navy at Colgate @11:00a.m.

Loyola (MD) at Lafayette @6:00p.m.

Army at Boston University @6:00p.m.

Bucknell at Lehigh @6:00p.m.

Holy Cross at American @6:00p.m.

January 15th

Colgate at Holy Cross @12:00p.m.

Boston University at Navy @1:00p.m.

Army at Lafayette @2:00p.m.

Lehigh at Loyola (MD) @2:00p.m.

January 16th

American at Bucknell @4:00p.m.

Patriot League Player of the Week

Avery LaBarbera, Holy Cross, Senior Guard

  • LaBarbera leads her team in scoring (14.6 ppg), rebounding (8.4 rpg) and assists (3.8 apg).
  • Her 17 rebounds versus Lehigh was a career best. It’s the seventh time this year that the 5’6 guard has hauled in double-digit rebounds in a game.
  • In a 64-53 win over Lehigh, she posted her fourth straight double-double and sixth of the season.

Patriot League Rookie of the Week

Lex Therien, Loyola (MD), Freshman Forward

  • Therien’s double-double against the Bison came on career-highs in both points (23) and rebounds (14).
  • She leads her team in steals (18) and is second in shooting percentage, converting 56-for-131 for 42.7% from the floor.
  • Earned her fourth double-double of the season in a 62-42 loss to Bucknell. Therien is averaging 11.4 points and 9.9 rebounds per game on the year.

League news and notes

  • There are four head coaches in the league who previously served as an assistant coach at a member institution: Boston University coach Melissa Graves (assistant at Colgate); Holy Cross coach Maureen Magarity (assistant at Army); Lehigh coach Sue Troyan (assistant at Lehigh); and American coach Megan Gebbia (assistant at American).
  • Freshman guard Alex Giannaros is making an impression in Patriot League play. The 5’5 guard is shooting 14-for-32 from the floor and 8-for-18 from three-point range through three games. She’s averaging 14.0 points an outing and has eight assists against just two turnovers during the span.
  • Army guard Alisa Fallon posted a double-double with 15 points and 12 rebounds in a 62-55 loss to Lehigh. It was the senior’s third double-double of the season. Fallon is averaging 14.3 ppg and 6.8 rpg.
  • Boston University’s Caitlin Weimar grabbed a career-high 18 rebounds and added 16 points in the Terriers’ 69-46 win over American. She also recorded four blocks and is averaging 1.4 per game.
  • Freshman Cecelia Collins scored 12 points and recorded six rebounds and seven assists in a 62-42 win for Bucknell over Loyola (MD).
  • Army is committing 20.4 turnovers per game—the most in the league.
  • Guard Kolbi Green has left the Navy program and will not be returning. She departed as the team’s second-leading scorer (12.2 ppg) and second in minutes played per game (36.8 mpg).
  • Colgate guard Morgan McMahon scored a career-high 24 points in a 66-63 loss to Army. The freshman was 8-for-14 from the floor and converted three three-pointers.

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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