March 11, 2021 

Patriot League notebook: Tournament semifinals; what to expect, and players to watch

Bucknell and Lehigh meet for the fifth time. Can the Mountain Hawks finally solve the Bison?

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Maggie Pina and the Terriers face a rematch of last year’s 46-44 playoff win over American. Boston University is looking for its first appearance in the Patriot League Championship game. Photo credit: Kevin Murray

The finish line is in sight with semifinal showdowns slated for Thursday night. All the favorites emerged from the quarterfinals, but top-seeded Bucknell looked rusty in its victory over winless Loyola (MD). The Bison are just one of two undefeated teams left in D1 play. Will they shake it off in time to overcome the offensive fire-power of Lehigh?

When these two teams tip-off, it will be the fifth time Bucknell has squared off against Lehigh in their last six games. If familiarity breeds contempt, this one should heat up quickly.

The Mountain Hawks eased past a pesky Holy Cross squad to earn their spot in the semifinal. Why was a break-out game from junior forward Emma Grothaus the biggest positive moving ahead? We’ll break down what to expect and outline the approach Lehigh needs to take to earn the season’s biggest upset against the undefeated Bison.

On the other side of the bracket, second-seeded Boston University edged Lafayette behind an early fourth-quarter run that broke open a tight contest. The Terriers had their best performance of the season from behind the three-point line. Sydney Johnson poured in 19 points and grabbed seven rebounds. What did they learn about center Maren Durant that will turn the game in their upcoming semi-final? We’ll share the secret to a Terrier win.

American rolled to its sixth-straight win with its quarterfinal victory over Army. It presents head coach Megan Gebbia’s team with the revenge game it has been looking forward to all year in a match with Boston University. What are the keys from the last year’s playoff loss to the Terriers and how does it translate this season? How does Gebbia reverse her group’s fortunes in their return playoff trip to Beantown? We’ll break down the Eagles’ chances.

The tests are all negative and all the semifinalists are good to go. Let’s tip it off with our breakdown of both games. Here’s all you need to know:

Photo credit: (L) Frannie Hottinger via Hannahally Photography (R) Tessa Brugler via Marc Hagemeier

No. 1 Bucknell Bison (9-0) vs. No. 4 Lehigh Mountain Hawks (8-5)

The key for Bucknell: Shaking the rust off and finding a flow on offense. It’s tempting to get caught up in the pace and space, three-ball firing style of offense that Lehigh likes to run. But the key for the Bison is to maintain discipline and effectively use ball movement in their half-court offense in the early going. Lots of touches means they’ll be making the Mountain Hawks play defense for extended periods—and that’s an advantage, Bucknell.

Senior guard Abby Kapp will need to find the range. She was just 2-for-10 from the floor and 0-for-7 from the three-point range in the quarterfinal against Loyola (MD). Taylor O’Brien and Ally Johnson kept the perimeter game balanced with a combined 7-for-12 from distance, but Kapp’s big game shooting will be in the spotlight.

The key for Lehigh: It’s all about the paint—both for scoring and rebounding. They have to attack the lane and challenge Bucknell at the rim. Although Lehigh is prolific in their three-point shooting volume, they must focus on finding quality shots in the paint and converting inside the arc at a higher rate.

The Mountain Hawks have played well at home in this match-up, but to win on the road they’ll need to win the battle of the boards, too.

Lehigh is +5 for rebounding in their two games at home versus the Bison. In their two on road, they’re -16. How do they pull off the upset? Outrebound Bucknell in Lewisburg. They’ll need to get physical.

Player to watch for Bucknell: Tessa Brugler. She’s been the heart of this team all season long. Her physicality, toughness, and intensity drive this team. Brugler’s consistency (11 points, 11 rebounds) kept Bucknell on track against Loyola (MD) and she’s the one to watch versus Lehigh. She’s averaged a double-double on the season (13.1 ppg., 10 rpg.) and the offense goes through her when the Bison are operating in their half-court action.

Player to watch for Lehigh: Emma Grothaus. The junior forward had 19 points and seven rebounds in her team’s 75-57 win over Holy Cross in the quarterfinal. Her season-high effort comes at the right time. Scoring in the high and low post is crucial for success against Bucknell and she is averaging 18 points over her last two games. In a season of fits and starts, it’s a good sign for the Mountain Hawks that the talented Grothaus is finding her rhythm. She’s a big key in her team’s attack in the middle of the floor—off the bounce and from range.

How Bucknell wins: Against either man-to-man defense or Lehigh’s 2-3 zone, Bucknell is best served with Autumn Ceppi and Tessa Brugler as facilitators on offense in the post areas—it opens everything for them on the perimeter. The Bison need to play their pace and let their deliberate style dictate the game. A big dose of Taylor O’Brien won’t hurt either. She is averaging 17.2 points per game against Lehigh and is a difficult match-up.

How Lehigh pulls the upset: The Mountain Hawks have to find a way to force pace through aggressive double-teams and in mixing up their defensive coverages. Post doubles on Brugler and trapping ball screen action to speed up Bucknell will be key. They also must use Grothaus and Frannie Hottinger (14.0 ppg., 6.9 rpg.) to attack in the middle of the floor. They have to win the battle for points in the paint. Big games are needed from both to be in a position to win.

Where to watch: Lehigh at Bucknell @7:00p.m. on ESPN+

Graphic by Spencer Nusbaum
Photo credit: (L) Jade Edwards via American University Athletics (R) Katie Nelson via Kevin Murray

No. 2 Boston University (11-2) vs. No. 3 American Eagles (7-3)

The key for Boston University: The biggest key on offense is to get out into transition early and often. If Sydney Johnson and Katie Nelson can keep the tempo high, the Eagles will be challenged to keep pace. In the half-court, the Terriers need to feed the post and make the defense react to an interior attack.

On the defensive end, the key is to get back in transition early enough to be able to fall into their 2-3 zone as often as possible, make or miss, and force American to win the perimeter game.

The key for American: Keep the turnovers down. They had 22 in their 76-56 playoff win over Army and it has been a problem all season. Live ball turnovers—or an ill-advised quick shot—against Boston University will lead to easy transition points for guards Nelson (12.5 ppg.) and Johnson (10.8 ppg.). American needs those extra possessions and for the pace to be a slow, methodical half-court game. Junior point guard Emily Fisher has emerged as a consistent scoring threat, averaging 15.6 points per game over the last three contests. But she’ll need to control the floor and reduce her group’s turnovers.

Player to watch for Boston University: Forward Maren Durant. The sophomore post scored a career-high 17 points in the Terriers’ 74-68 win over Lafayette. Durant’s emergence as a more consistent finisher around the rim makes Boston University a much more difficult team to defend—if they feed her the ball.

If it’s a big secret, the secret is out: Durant is getting more comfortable scoring in the paint. In the last five games, the 6’3 forward is averaging 12.8 points per game and shooting 77.7% from the floor (28-for-36). For the season, she’s converting 71.3% (57-for-80). If head coach Marisa Moseley chooses to attack the Eagles interior, Durant may make a run at another career-high. American cannot match up with her inside.

Player to watch for American: Keep your eye on Jade Edwards. She’s fought all season to get back to this moment against the Terriers. In American’s 46-44 playoff loss last season, Edwards (18.5 ppg.) scored 14 points and grabbed nine rebounds but struggled with some foul trouble and was limited to just 24 minutes. This is the game for Edwards to shine but she’ll need to be patient enough to find the soft spots in the BU zone to have a big scoring day—and she’ll need to avoid foul issues. Redemption is always a great story. Edwards is the player to watch.

How Boston University wins: The American defense is a notch above what the Terriers just saw against Lafayette, but the Eagles don’t have the size of the Leopards. Boston’s perimeter attack in its quarterfinal win paved the way–a 13-for-22 performance from three-point range. But things will look different against the Eagles and the Terriers need to make the most of their own size advantage in the paint and look for high and low post opportunities to score. If the Terriers involve Riley Childs (7.1 ppg.) and Durant in the offense, it will open those three-point opportunities for Maggie Pina (9.9 ppg.,10-for-24 from 3pt range in last three games), Nelson (12.5 ppg), and Johnson (10.8 ppg.).

How American pulls the upset: Playing under control on the offensive end, sharing the ball, and handling pressure at the top of the zone. The Terriers can extend the guards in their 2-3 zone and the Eagles will have to stay composed and make use of the high post area to relieve pressure and find open teammates in the short corner areas. Forwards Taylor Brown (10.3 ppg.) and Karla Vres (8.3 ppg.) will be key. Expect Emily Johns to be impactful off the bench. It’s going to take a collective effort to attack the zone successfully and they’ll have to avoid the temptation to take too many three-pointers. The Eagles shoot just 32.9% from behind the arc.

For the smaller Eagles, they’ll also need to be competitive on the boards. In last year’s playoff loss, the Terriers outrebounded American, 40 to 22. If Edwards and company can close that gap, the program will be making its eighth championship game appearance in the league.

Where to watch: American at Boston University @6:00p.m. on ESPN+

Written by Todd Goclowski

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