January 21, 2021 

Patriot League notebook: Holy Cross surprises; Army pulls a big upset

BU and Lehigh fall from the unbeatens, Bucknell stays perfect

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And then there was one. Heading into the weekend with three undefeated teams, the league finished week three with Bucknell leading the pack, now with the inside track of hosting playoff action. The Bison’s sweep of Lehigh, combined with Army’s upset of Boston University sets up an intriguing slate of matchups this weekend that may separate the playoff contenders from the pretenders.

Over in Worcester, Holy Cross fans have a reason for optimism in a place that used to be in the championship discussion every season. Times have changed, but Crusader forward Oluchi Ezemma is doing her part to make believers out of the rest of the league. Let’s take a look at what it all means:

Oluchi Ezemma has helped Holy Cross to a 4-2 start and second place in the North division. Photo credit: Mark Seliger Photography

Holy Cross forward Oluchi Ezemma and her team are a league surprise in the early going. How good are the Crusaders?

The road to the league championship used to end at Exit 11 off of I-290 in Worcester. It was the bus ride you didn’t want to take; a path well-traveled for the Crusaders—11 times to the title to be exact.

Down the College Square off-ramp, one quick right-hand turn, and a short climb up the hill to the gym, you’ll find those old championship banners hanging from the rafters. On Sunday, it was also the place where this year’s team completed a sweep of the Colgate Raiders. It’s just two wins, but in a season of change on the hill, it might mean a whole lot more than that.

The surprising Crusaders moved to 4-2 and now sit in second place in the North division. Are they a playoff team?

They were picked by league coaches and SIDs in the preseason poll to fall short of qualifying for the playoffs (top eight are in the league tourney) and justifiably so when you look at what they lost to graduation: five seniors, including four starters, among them Lauren Manis–the only player in school basketball history to reach the 2,000-point and 1,000-rebound milestones. The squad’s occasional starter and first sub off the bench, senior Jenay Faulkner, also elected not to resume her basketball career.

Additionally, the school announced a change in leadership following last season and moved on to the team’s third head coach in three years.

New head coach Maureen Magarity arrived last April in the odd position of facing a rebuild at Holy Cross—a program long-established as one of the most successful in the league with a record 18 title game appearances. It’s a season of lowered expectations, but the team has surprised early.

What has Holy Cross off to such a positive start?

It’s coaching and buy-in. Credit Magarity and her staff for establishing a new culture and producing results in the early going. And credit the players for lending their ears to a new voice and vision. Despite the multiple challenges of coaching in the coronavirus era, the team has succeeded with a new methodology and has been consistently competitive. They’re playing an aggressive man-to-man defense and attacking on offense with an up-tempo style–and a predominantly read and react approach in the half-court.

On the hardwood, the players are executing. Preseason All-Patriot league point guard Avery LaBarbera is one of the league’s best players and the only returning starter. Her performance fuels confidence in her team and her presence is the reliable puzzle piece that any new coach would love to inherit. There clearly is a new work ethic, too.

And that work is paying off. This weekend, Oluchi Ezemma led Holy Cross to a key North division sweep of Colgate, posting 14 points and 17 rebounds in a 63-62 last-second victory to cap the sweep. The surprise Crusaders have won four in a row and now sit in second place at 4-2, trailing Boston University by a game.

Ezemma is living her best life in the paint. She is tops in the league in offensive rebounding, grabbing 4.8 per game—good for eighth nationally. She has scored 11.5 points an outing and grabbed 10.0 rebounds per game over the winning stretch. For the season, she’s averaging 9.3 ppg and 8.8 rpg.

Starting is a new role for the junior who’s spent her first two seasons coming off the bench. She played in 27 games, scoring 5.2 ppg and hauling in 5.6 rpg last year. The 5’11 Ezemma played behind 6’1 first-team All-Patriot forward Manis and 6’3 center Megan Swords, but now she’s stepping up.

Joining her in the starting line-up and making an impression around the league is freshman wing Bronagh Power-Cassidy. The veteran of the Irish National Team is averaging 11.7 points and 4.7 rebounds per game. She was named the league’s Rookie of the Week after posting 13- and 16-point games against Colgate.

Holy Cross will face uphill battles over the next two weekends. They’ll play two road games at Lehigh this week before another home-and-home against divisional foe Boston University. The Terriers swept the Crusaders on opening weekend.

While the team is not yet in a position to realistically compete for a championship, its playoff aspirations are justified and within reach. It’s been 14 years since the program’s last title, but with great point guard play from LaBarbera and consistent performances from their post players, the pieces to the puzzle could be falling into place in Worcester. In the seasons ahead, exit 11 may just be an off-ramp to the championship once again.

Kate Murray returned to the rotation for Army and provided a boost as the Black Knights upset Boston University 54-43, for a big divisional win. Photo credit: Army West Point Athletics

Army pulls an upset against undefeated Boston University

A decisive third-quarter run and a more focused defense helped the Black Knights pull off the season’s biggest upset in a 54-43 victory over the previously unbeaten Terriers. Junior guard Sarah Bohn led the way with 13 points on 4-for-6 shooting, including two three-pointers.

The weekend two-game set marked the return of forward Kate Murray. Sunday’s win was her first start since Dec. 12th versus Quinnipiac. Murray contributed nine points and seven rebounds in 18 minutes on the floor and gave the line-up a much-needed boost in the frontcourt against the taller Terriers.

Did Army address their issue with turnovers?

The Black Knights still struggled with ball control, committing 18 turnovers in the victory. But their defense also forced BU into 18 turnovers of their own, leading to a 16-14 edge in points off turnovers in the upset victory. It was a dramatic improvement from a week ago when Army was outscored 46-to-7 in the same category for its two games against Holy Cross. This weekend, the Black Knights won the category 34-to-30 and grabbed a key split in the North division.

The difference was a more consistent effort on the defensive end in the second and third quarters. Army limited BU to a 1-for-13 effort from the field in the second frame. In the third quarter, they outscored the Terriers 13-to-4 and held BU without a field goal for a stretch of seven minutes and 20 seconds. Sophomore guard Sydney Johnson’s two buckets were the only scores for BU.

Head coach Dave Magarity acknowledged those strengths in his post-game statement:

We were able to continue with the defensive energy and focus that we had yesterday. And today we were able to combine it with better offensive execution for big stretches in the game.

Next up is a two-game swing with Navy at West Point. The Black Knights have been inconsistent but now have Murray and guard Sarah Bohn back into the mix—and a key win over BU in hand as teams aim for playoff positioning. Are they ready to make a playoff push? If the rotation can stay consistent, the answer is yes.

Senior Abby Kapp scored 18 points on 8-for-13 shooting in Bucknell’s 80-66 win to complete a weekend sweep. Photo credit: Marc Hagemeier

Bucknell sweeps Lehigh in a showdown of undefeated teams; what can the Mountain Hawks do to beat the Bison?

For the second consecutive season, the Bison and Mountain Hawks faced off with undefeated league records and first place at stake. Bucknell came out on top again, but unlike last season in Bethlehem, the battle was in doubt into the final quarter. These are two good teams.

In the opener of the weekend set, Bucknell won 68-60 behind the inspired play of forward Tessa Brugler. The senior scored 11 points and hauled in a career-high 19 rebounds. Her drive and score from the high post tied it at 57-57 with 5:25 to play, and two free throws on the next possession put the Bison on top to stay.

Lehigh controlled much of the game, but a 13-0 Bucknell run in the fourth quarter came without a response.

In the closer, the combination of great guard play from Abby Kapp (18 points on 8-for-13) and Taylor O’Brien (18 points on 9-for-13) with post-production from Brugler (12 points, 14 rebounds) was too much for Lehigh. The Bison led throughout and won, 80-66.

Does Bucknell have the Central division locked up? And what can Lehigh do about it?

Let’s answer those questions by taking a look at points in the paint. In the first game, Bucknell won the battle on the road, 38-18. In the second, it was 50-22. Why the disparity? The answer is in the approach and scheme on each end of the floor. Let’s break it down to the basics:

On offense, the Bison play through their posts as much as possible while Lehigh primarily runs five-out, motion action. Both teams attack the paint well off the dribble but the Mountain Hawks often use penetration to draw the defense and kick out for a perimeter shot. They lead the league with 11.0 three-pointers per game on 66-for-185 (35.7%)—60 more attempts than other teams with the same number of games played.

Conversely, Bucknell’s primary focus is getting into the lane via an attacking pass or off penetration, looking for paint points. Brugler is excellent at creating a target inside. And O’Brien is a quick first-step penetrator with one of the best pull-up jumpers in the league; she absolutely dominated the lane in the first quarter of game two from the guard position.

So how does Lehigh counter?

They must emphasize offense through the high-and low-post areas and utilize alignments that flatten the defense and present the most challenge for rotating help. Lehigh’s five-out motion keeps Bucknell defenders at all three levels in the half-court and as a result, their rotations are easier to execute over the course of the game.

Sophomore Frannie Hottinger (12.8 ppg) and senior Mary Clougherty (14.7 ppg) are willing shooters who can get their shot off in the lane and at mid-range under pressure; they need to attack more in the paint. Senior post Emma Grothaus also needs more consistent touches in the lane.

There are defensive tweaks available, too. In the absence of a rim-protecting post, the Mountain Hawks must aggressively double the ball on the block and execute their rotations on the pass out of the double-team. And the defense must keep Brugler and 6’ 1 forward Carly Krsul off their spots in the low-post to avoid forcing that double too often.

Bucknell plays with the most discipline in the league and they execute on both ends more consistently than any other team. For Lehigh to win, they’ll have to use the Bison’s greatest strength—their discipline—as a weapon against them. Lehigh’s defense must make Bucknell reactive and force them to play more organically either through the use of attacking double-teams or a pressuring half-court zone.

Only two teams have defeated the Bison in league play since Feb. 23, 2019—Loyola (MD) and Boston University (a 23-2 record for Bucknell in league action from that date). Both primarily played a 2-3 zone defense in their wins. BU has a defender at the rim in 6’3 post Maren Durant and used her presence to extend pressure. Loyola (MD), in the absence of a similar post defender, doubled down low and in the short corner of the zone.

And those all-important points in the paint? Loyola (MD) topped it at 24-10, and Boston University won, 22-12. The road to the championship may go through Lewisburg—right through the lane.

The teams are scheduled for another weekend two-game showdown beginning on Jan. 30th. Lehigh is off to a great start at 4-2, but to beat Bucknell they’ll have to make a few adjustments.

Navy defeated American 70-67 for Tim Taylor’s first win as a collegiate head coach. Photo credit: Navy Athletics

Navy beats American, notches first win for their new head coach; who’s the favorite in the South division now?

Navy captured its first win of the season with a 70-67 decision over American to earn a weekend split. It was the first collegiate victory for head coach Tim Taylor and earned them a tie atop the South division.

Kolbi Green led the way with 25 points on 7-for-14 shooting, adding three triples. The game turned on American’s 24 turnovers, allowing Navy to take 15 more field goals and win the points off turnovers battle, 23-19. Taylor praised his group’s resiliency in his post-game release:

The adversity that they’ve been through; not being able to go home for such long stretches of time and with all of the COVID protocols that they have to deal with. Earlier this week was the first time we’ve had 10 healthy players at practice all year. We’ve been trying to control what we can control each day. I’m really excited for them.

American won the opener, 61-52 behind 16 points from Jade Edwards and a 12-point outburst off the bench from Karla Vres. The Eagles ran out to a 16-point fourth-quarter lead, 51-36, and cruised to a 61-52 win. How does this split impact the South division?

It’s going to be a wide-open race. Navy and American are in search of depth and developing a regular rotation. Five out of the top ten players in the league in minutes played per game suit up for these two teams. Next up for American is a key divisional match-up with Loyola (MD). Navy gets two games with Army.

Current Standings:

(Division record, League overall record)

North division

Boston University (5-1, 5-1)

Holy Cross (4-2, 4-2)

Army (2-4, 2-4)

Colgate (1-5, 1-5)

Central division

Bucknell (4-0, 6-0)

Lehigh (2-2, 4-2)

Lafayette (0-4, 0-4)

South division

Navy (1-1, 1-1)

American (1-1, 1-3)

Loyola (MD) (0-0, 0-2)

What’s the can’t-miss match-up of the week? American at Loyola (MD)

It’s a vital two-game set in the South division. All three teams are playing catch-up in their segment of the re-alignment as we head into week four of league play, but Loyola (MD) is the only team that has yet to play a divisional opponent this season. They have not played a game since Jan. 3rd.

It has not been smooth sailing for head coach Joe Logan and his team; every single contest to date has been altered by COVID-19. Their season-and league-opening weekend games versus American were postponed due to coronavirus protocols and the Greyhounds moved up a two-game matchup with Bucknell in its place with less than 24 hours’ notice to tip-off. They haven’t played a game since.

So how will the Greyhounds respond to the challenge? Expect a big game from St. Joseph’s transfer, Devyne Newman. The 5’8 junior guard scored 16 points in the opener versus Bucknell on 8-for-14 shooting. A potential matchup against All-league defender Indeya Sanders will be key.

American is led by the dynamic play of guard Jade Edwards. The junior is leading the league in scoring at 22.0 points per game and fourth overall in shooting, converting 54.5% from the floor (31-for-56). Keep your eye on freshman Ivy Bales too. She was inserted into the starting line-up last weekend and produced seven points and six rebounds in 26 minutes of action.

Loyola will need to improve upon their perimeter shooting to earn a win this weekend. The Greyhounds are shooting 4-for-32 from three-point distance for 12.5%. American must find some production and quality minutes from the bench. Lack of consistent practice time due to coronavirus has impacted conditioning around the league, American included. The Eagles may find themselves vulnerable on day two of the back-to-back games all season.

The last meeting: Feb. 12, 2020. Loyola (MD) topped the Eagles 56-47, in their first victory over American since 2016. A 12-4 run from the end of the third quarter and into the fourth helped put the defensive clash out of reach. The Greyhounds won the battles in both turnovers and rebounding to seal the win. Jade Edwards led American with 22 points.

Tune in to Patriot League action this week:

(Note: The Patriot League is no longer streaming games for free on the Stadium platform. All games are now streamed through ESPN+ for a subscription fee. Click here for the video link to all league competition.)

January 23rd

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

American at Loyola (MD) @1:00p.m.

Navy at Army @1:00p.m.

Colgate at Bucknell @4:00p.m.

*Lafayette at Boston University (postponed)

January 24th

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

Navy at Army @1:00p.m.

Loyola (MD) at American @4:00p.m.

Colgate at Bucknell @4:00p.m.

*Lafayette at Boston University (postponed)

*Postponed due to a positive COVID-19 test within the Lafayette women’s basketball program’s Tier 1 group.

Graphic courtesy of Bucknell Athletics

Patriot League Player of the Week:

Tessa Brugler, Bucknell, Senior Forward

  • Grabbed a career-high 19 rebounds in a 68-60 win over Lehigh in a battle of conference unbeaten teams.

  • Averaged 11.5 points and 16.5 rebounds in the weekend sweep over Lehigh.

  • Brugler is averaging a double-double for the season with 12.5 points per game and 10.8 rebounds per game.

Graphic courtesy of Holy Cross Athletics

Patriot League Rookie of the Week

Bronagh Power-Cassidy, Holy Cross, Freshman Guard

  • Averaged 14.5 points and 6.5 rebounds per game in two wins over Colgate.

  • Hit the game-winning free throw with three seconds left in a 63-62 win.

  • Leads the Crusaders with seven blocks on the season.

League news and notes:

  • Colgate freshman wing Morgan Frank earned her first career double-double with a 12-point, 10-rebound performance versus Holy Cross.

  • Jennifer Coleman averaged 16.5 points, 9.0 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 2.5 steals for Navy to help the Mids to a series split with American. Her 17-point effort sparked a 70-67 win on Sunday.

  • American’s Jade Edwards is 9th in the nation with 3.8 steals per game.

  • Sophomore Maggie Pina, Rookie of the Year a season ago, is off to a challenging start from three-point range. The sharpshooter is converting just 23.9% (11-for-46) from behind the arc. Last year, Pina shot 38.9% on 70-for-180 from three.

  • 6’1 forward Autumn Ceppi leads Bucknell in assists with 4.2 per game. Her assist-to-turnover ratio is also tops in the league at 3.6. She had a career-high 11 assists in an 80-66 win over Lehigh.

  • Freshmen Lauren Lithgow (23.9 mpg) and Sam McNaughton (21.8 mpg) have appeared in all nine games for Army this season.

  • Boston University forward Chiara Tibbitt is the president and co-founder of BU’s Student-Athletes of Color group, a group whose goal is to foster an environment that ensures the opinions of students are valued, respected, and empowered.

  • Lehigh is leading the league in scoring at 74.7 points per game and tops in assists with 17.5 a contest.

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Written by Todd Goclowski

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