February 6, 2021 

Patriot League notebook: Who’s in, who’s out for playoffs?

Bucknell's dramatic comeback, Lafayette's return

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Senior forward Tessa Brugler has been leading the charge in the paint for Bucknell all season. Brugler’s game-winning jumper gave the Bison a four-game season sweep over Lehigh. Photo credit: Marc Hagemeier

The marquee match-up of the week between rivals Lehigh and Bucknell did not disappoint, and Tessa Brugler showed why she’s the heart of the Bison in her team’s weekend sweep. Lafayette’s return to the court for the first time in a month showed hints of their preseason promise with a win over Loyola (MD).

Can the Leopards find enough wins on the schedule to put together a run to the playoffs? They could be the most dangerous at-large playoff team in the mix—if they can make it. Let’s break it all down, take a look at what it means moving forward, and see who’s in or out as the playoff chase takes shape.

This week around the league:

Top takeaways from Bucknell’s dramatic comeback win over Lehigh

It was an astonishing finish to the latest chapter in the league’s best rivalry. In the weekend closer of their home-and-home set, Lehigh led 59-41 at Stabler arena with 1:22 remaining in the third quarter before Bucknell stormed back to earn their eighth win of the year and leave the hosts stunned—and swept.

The Bison went on a 21-5 run in the final 4:48 of the contest to win, 73-68, to earn the weekend sweep. They outscored Lehigh 27-9 overall in the fourth quarter to pull out a surprising comeback win on the road. They came up big when it counted, scoring more points in the fourth (27) than they did in the entire first half (26).

Senior Abby Kapp led the defending champions with a team-high 20 points (7-for-12 from the field) while Tessa Brugler posted a double-double of 19 points and 10 rebounds. It was Brugler’s turnaround fade-away jumper in the paint with 16 seconds left that gave the visitors their first lead since early in the first quarter.

Lehigh was led by sophomore wing Frannie Hottinger who contributed 24 points (8-for-10 from the field) and nine rebounds. Senior guard Mary Clougherty chipped in 15 points. In the second half, the Mountain Hawks played too fast with the lead and then failed to find match-up advantages as the game shifted to slower half-court play down the stretch.

They played a little tight, too, missing key free throws and some open looks as the lead melted away. When the Bison increased their defensive intensity, Lehigh’s offensive possessions showed less ball movement and discipline than they did in the first half.

What are the positives for Lehigh? They had their best performance attacking the paint and looked for post match-ups and mid-range offense throughout the game. Bucknell won the battle for points in the paint, 32-30, but it was their best performance of the four games versus the Bison. It’s clear that the Mountain Hawks can have success attacking inside and must find the patience to attack mismatches or exploit match-up advantages on Bucknell’s switches, especially during crunch time in the last quarter.

Let’s dive into the biggest takeaways of the Lehigh-Bucknell battle:

It’s a confidence thing. Lehigh has held fourth-quarter leads in both of their home games against the Bison and failed to close them out. Losses happen but this one hurt. The defeat feels symbolic of something other than just an ‘L’ in the column; there is a belief issue and it’s showing up in crunch time. Head Coach Sue Troyan spoke directly about the team’s confidence to The Brown and White:

Each game, we have gotten a little bit better, this game we certainly got better, and a big part for us is the confidence piece and knowing we can compete with them. I don’t think it’s an X’s and O’s thing offensively or defensively. It’s just believing in ourselves and believing in one another that we are capable of having success. We showed that through the first three quarters.

Youth or inexperience can show up in big games, big moments. Is that the issue here? This loss is an opportunity for Lehigh to examine the root cause of their crisis of confidence and address it with any needed adjustments.

Free throws matter. In the crucial fourth quarter, Bucknell converted 13-for-13 from the line, including a perfect 9-for-9 performance from Brugler.

The numbers indicate it isn’t anomalous. Over four games this season versus the Mountain Hawks, the Bison are shooting 51-for-62 for 82.2%. And they’re clutch in crunch time too. In the final frame of all four games combined against Lehigh, the Bison are shooting 88.8% from the line (24-for-27).

On the season, they are 110-for-135, good for 81.5% from the line—tops in the conference. Junior guard Taylor O’Brien leads the league in shooting from the charity stripe, converting 91.3% (21-for-23). In contrast, the Mountain Hawks were 1-for-5 in the last quarter. In the previous three, they were 11-for-11.

Tessa Brugler owns the paint. Brugler had 15 points in the decisive final frame. Her last field goal of the game came in the paint on a fade-away; it was all net and it sealed the deal in Bethlehem.

When she catches on the right block, she’s going to want to turn to her right shoulder first, and that’s exactly what she did before that clutch shot. She took a dribble, made a quick read to look for any help defender or if her player moved up too high to contest; no one came, space was there, step away, turn and shoot. Game over.

Brugler’s evolution on the block has everything to do with Bucknell’s continued dominance this season. They play through their posts, and Brugler is their leader. Her physical play and 19 boards pulled the Bison through their previous fourth quarter comeback on the road against Lehigh back on January 16th. They won that one, 68-60.

On that day, it was an and-one from Brugler midway through the final quarter that tied it at 57-57, and then her two free throws less than a minute later that gave them the lead for good. If Lehigh sees Bucknell again this year, they’ll have to find a way to solve that post match-up if they want to beat the Bison. In the meantime, Brugler owns the paint.

Fourth quarter finish. When the game comes down to the wire, Bucknell plays its best basketball. The numbers coming into the two-game set foretold the story: the Bison had outscored opponents 122-77 in the last quarter—also the team’s best defensive frame. Conversely, Lehigh had bested its challengers in every quarter except the fourth, losing the last one, 158-144.

In the games played at Lehigh this season, the Bison trailed in the fourth each time but combined to outscore their hosts 48-18 in those two contests. In all four head-to-head match-ups this season, Bucknell has combined to outscore the Mountain Hawks 84 to 47 in the fourth quarter. The Bison are the best, most experienced, and deepest team in the league; they are going to outperform most teams. But Lehigh’s final quarter woes deserve a deeper look if they plan to dethrone the defending champs this season.

Drew Freeland looks to make a playoff push for Lafayette in a tough Central division. Photo credit: Rick Smith/Lafayette Athletic Communciations

Let’s get wild (card): the chase for playoff spots in a new format

Who has the upper hand as the playoff picture starts to take shape at the halfway mark of the season? This year, the league format will include automatic qualifiers from the top two teams from each division, and two at-large teams to fill out the eight-team field. That will leave two programs at home. Who’s on track and who is fighting to get in? Let’s take a look at who’s a lock and who’s not.

It’s a messy picture with the impact COVID-19 has had on scheduling. Only Army and Lehigh have played all 10 scheduled conference games and the Mountain Hawks are now on pause due to a positive test this week. Loyola (MD) and Lafayette have played just five contests; and Navy only four. It may be muddy, but here’s how the playoff outlook is taking shape:

Central division: There’s a clear front-runner for the top overall seed and that’s Bucknell. The 8-0 Bison are unlikely to lose a game on the remaining schedule. The inside-out punch of post Tessa Brugler (13.4 ppg, 9.9 rpg) and shooter Abby Kapp (12.1 ppg, 35.4% from three) lead the way for the favorites. They’ve clinched the Central division and one of the automatic top-three seeds for divisional winners.

Lehigh is positioned for a second-place finish. Their 2-4 record in the division may not look all that shiny, but they’ve only lost to Bucknell and have given them all they could handle. At 6-4 overall, they have a sweep over division member Lafayette with two games remaining on the schedule versus the Leopards. One win, and they clinch second place.

On the outside looking in: That leaves Lafayette (1-4) who is off to a rough start on and off the court. A preseason pick to finish third in the league overall behind the dynamic play of Natalie Kucowski (15.0 ppg) and Drew Freeland (12.2 ppg), they’ve struggled in the early going, been sidelined due to COVID-19 scheduling challenges, and have just not found their rhythm. They’ll need an unlikely sweep of Lehigh to avoid being a part of the wild card chase. Lehigh’s COVID-19 pause has moved that match-up at least two weeks away but the delay may allow the Leopards some time to fine-tune before the showdown.

North Division: Boston University (5-1) is on top in the North and has the inside track for staying there. Despite a stumble on the road versus Army, the Terriers are in solid position behind the play of guards Katie Nelson (14.8 ppg, 5.0 apg) and Sydney Johnson (9.5 ppg).

Surprise contender for the second spot in the division is Holy Cross. The Crusaders control their own destiny here. They have two games in hand on third-place Army, their opponent this weekend. Earning a split still gives them the edge heading down the stretch. If Avery LaBarbera (12.9 ppg, 3.4 apg) and company can continue their energetic play on defense and pace of play on offense, expect an automatic spot as a second-place finisher in the playoff seeding for head coach Maureen Magarity’s squad.

On the outside looking in: Army (4-4) needs two wins over Holy Cross this week to position themselves for second place. Last weekend’s sweep of Colgate gives them the upper hand in the fight for an at-large against the Raiders should they fall short of their pursuit of the second spot in the division. Colgate’s (1-7) streak of injuries has sidelined a once promising season for a young group with talent. Their starting line-up to open last weekend against Army combined to total 4.5 minutes of game experience from the previous year. They were forced to postpone the upcoming two-game set with Boston University because they were unable to field the minimum number of student-athletes to compete. They’ll need to get healthy fast to have a chance.

South Division: American University sits atop the division most impacted by COVID-19 delays and disruptions. The Eagles (3-1) are in the best position to finish as champions of the South. Despite starts and stops impacting both her team’s conditioning and the flow of their motion offense, head coach Megan Gebbia’s group is on the way to the three-seed in the playoffs if they can hold on here. Junior Jade Edwards (20.0 ppg) is making her case for Player of the Year and Gebbia has been working hard to create a regular rotation and stretch it into something resembling depth moving ahead.

Navy is a bit of a wild card here—potentially both literally and figuratively. They’re likely headed for one of the wild card spots if they can grab a few more wins. They seem like a team capable of streaking in either direction. Although the Mids (1-1 in the division), who along with Army have had the advantage of playing non-conference games, have the potential to be a little more polished and tested down the stretch than their division opponents. They are 2-2 in the league overall. But they have had their coronavirus interruptions too, so maybe rhythm will be elusive for head coach Tim Taylor’s team as well.

On the outside looking in: Loyola (MD) has had to navigate some unlucky hurdles, especially with schedule changes and delays due to the virus. The Greyhounds are 0-2 in the division and 0-5 overall in the league. Their scheduled games versus Bucknell this weekend have been postponed due to a positive test in the Bison’s program.

The team will play a four-game stretch versus American from February 17th through the 24th. If there’s going to be a breakthrough that can help with a wild card playoff push, it will happen in that run of games.

Sophomore forward Emily McAteer leads the team with 11.4 points per game. Taleah Dixon is adding 11.0 a contest and newcomer Devyne Newman is chipping in 8.2 per game. Head coach Joe Logan is one of the most creative game planners in the league and his imagination will be tested down the stretch.

So who has the best chance to lock up the two wild cards? For the teams that are on the outside looking in, the best chance to lock up those at-large spots belongs to Army and Lafayette. Coach Dave Magarity’s team is on a three-game winning streak. The Knights already have five league wins and a schedule that is more friendly than most. The Leopards (1-4) have just one win, but their schedule looks more favorable than Colgate (1-7) coming down the stretch. The Raiders’ injury woes may just be too much to overcome to snag a spot in the league tournament.

The playoff picture won’t become much clearer due to the COVID-19 postponements this weekend, but keep an eye out for what the league does with the growing number of make-up games filling up the last two weeks of the schedule. Who gets matched up and when could be a determinative factor in the race. In the interim, the Army-Holy Cross series has big playoff implications and they are set to tip off as scheduled.

Senior forward Natalie Kucowski came out of her team’s COVID-19 delay with an exceptional all around effort against Loyola (MD) with 19 points, 10 rebounds, and six assists. Photo credit: Rick Smith/Lafayette Athletic Communications

Lafayette returns to the court after an extended break

Lafayette earned their first win of the season, defeating Loyola 66-57 on the road. Normally, getting that first win on the last weekend of January would be a sign of what you’re building for next season. But these aren’t normal times, and this win for the Leopards is a hopeful sign for what’s to come this season and their aim to fulfill the promise of a lofty preseason ranking.

It hasn’t been easy. Lafayette (0-4, 1-4) plays in the Central division—the toughest of the three new alignments for the COVID-19 era. But after weekend sweeps at the hands of Bucknell and Lehigh, and a coronavirus delay, there’s renewed energy for head coach Kia Damon-Olson’s club.

How did they beat Loyola (MD) on the road after such a long lay-off?

There was some rust in the first half, but the Leopards showed balance on offense and controlled the action throughout, taking a 21-11 first quarter lead and navigating some inconsistencies through to the win. Senior Natalie Kucowski led the way with 19 points, 10 rebounds and six assists. Drew Freeland added 13 points and Nicole Johnson scored a season-high 12 points. Sophomore Reilly Campbell posted a career-high nine points and seven rebounds.

What’s ahead for the Leopards now that they shaken the rust off? Well, more rust unfortunately. The team’s weekend set against divisional foe Lehigh has been postponed due to a positive COVID-19 test in the Mountain Hawks’ Tier 1 group.

The squad will get an opportunity to compete in one game this weekend, however. An 11th-hour scheduling addition has the Leopards playing Boston University on Sunday. The Lehigh match-up will be re-scheduled in coordination with the league. When they get their chance against their local rival, Lafayette will need to sweep if they are to challenge the Mountain Hawks for the remaining automatic qualifying spot for the second place finisher. Bucknell has already clinched the Central division.

Current Standings:

(Division record, League overall record)

North division

Boston University (5-1, 5-1)

Holy Cross (4-2, 4-4)

Army (4-4, 5-5)

Colgate (1-7, 1-7)

Central division

Bucknell (6-0, 8-0)

Lehigh (2-4, 6-4)

Lafayette (0-4, 1-4)

South division

American (3-1, 3-3)

Navy (1-1, 2-2)

Loyola (MD) (0-2, 0-5)

Father and daughter meet again this weekend for a two-game set with playoff implications for both Army and Holy Cross. Photo credit: Army West Point Athletics

What’s the can’t-miss match-up of the week? Holy Cross at Army

It is round two of a family affair for the Magaritys as father and daughter square off as opposing head coaches for another home-and-home showdown. It will be also be a weekend packed with emotion and playoff intensity. The Sunday game at Army will likely be the last home game for Knight head coach Dave Magarity who announced his retirement a week ago. It’s also senior day for his squad. What’s at stake? These teams are battling for playoff position, second-place in the division, and an automatic spot in the 4-5-6 seeding position. Army will also be looking to avenge an 80-46 thumping on its home floor last month—the only road win for Holy Cross this year.

If Holy Cross head coach Maureen Magarity can keep up the defensive pressure with her group’s aggressive man-to-man defense, expect the Army turnovers to be the main storyline. In consecutive games in their last weekend set against the Crusaders, the Knights committed 25 and 22 turnovers, respectively—both season highs. The pace will be fast and the games much more competitive this round than last.

The last meeting: January 10, 2021.The Crusaders won, 61-42 behind a balanced offensive attack led by Cara McCormack (12 points) and Addisyn Cross (11 points). The first quarter was sloppy with 19 combined turnovers as both teams struggled to find a successful pace of play. A 10-2 third quarter run by Holy Cross to start the half, and an 8-0 burst to start the fourth kept Army on its heels. Alisa Fallon and Natalie Stralkus led the Knights with 15 points apiece.

COVID positives and injuries nearly wipe out entire weekend schedule

And then there was one.

The league’s slate of five games each day this weekend has been reduced to one: Holy Cross and Army will play their home-and-home series as scheduled. Due to positive COVID-19 tests within the Tier 1 group for American, Bucknell, and Lehigh, their scheduled games are postponed. Both Bucknell and Lehigh will also miss next weekend’s contests as they will remain on pause per protocol.

Examples of individuals in the Tier 1 designation include student-athletes, coaches, athletic trainers, equipment staff, medical staff, physical therapists and officials.

The Colgate-Boston University two-game set has been postponed as the Raiders were unable to field the minimum number of student-athletes to compete. The issue is not COVID-19 related. Colgate lost four starters to season-ending injuries prior to the season’s start and dressed just eight players last weekend against Army.

The scheduling changes allowed for a late addition to the weekend line-up by two teams impacted by their opponents’ cancellations. Boston University will now play at Lafayette on Sunday at 1:00p.m. on ESPN+.

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.)

February 6th

#Lafayette at Lehigh @12:00p.m.

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

Army at Holy Cross @2:30p.m.

^Colgate at Boston University @3:00p.m.

+Navy at American @4:00p.m.

February 7th

Boston University at Lafayette @1:00p.m. (addition made on February 5th)

^Colgate at Boston University @2:00p.m.

#Lehigh at Lafayette @2:00p.m.

Holy Cross at Army @3:00p.m.

+Navy at American @4:00p.m.

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

February 10th

Loyola (MD) at Lafayette @7:00p.m.

#Postponed due to a positive COVID-19 test within the Lehigh basketball program’s Tier 1 group.

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

+ Postponed due to a positive COVID-19 test within the American basketball program’s Tier 1 group.

^Postponed because the Raiders fell below the NCAA minimum number of available student-athletes to compete (non-COVID related).

Patriot League Player of the Week:

Tessa Brugler, Bucknell, Senior Forward

Patriot League Rookie of the Week

Lauren Lithgow, Army, Freshman Guard

  • Lithgow was 5-for-7 from the three-point line in a 79-53 win over Colgate. She’s shooting 35.3% (18-for-51) from behind the arc—good for ninth in the conference.

  • Shot 7-for-8 from the free throw line combined in the weekend sweep of the Raiders. Lithgow leads Army in free throw shooting percentage this season, converting 39-of-45 for 86.7%.

  • Her 19 points in the 79-53 win matched a career high. She’s averaging 8.6 points per game and has started nine of 15 games.

League news and notes:

  • Senior forward Natalie Kucowski tallied her 47th career double-double with 19 points and 10 rebounds in the Leopards win over Loyola (MD).

  • Four Colgate players made their first career starts in the Raiders’ weekend match-ups with Army. Ariel Loiter, Morgan Frank, Geddy Rerko, and Alexa Naessens each made a debut.

  • The COVID-19 impact: at the conclusion of the weekend, just one team—Army–will have played in all 12 scheduled conference games this season. Nine of the 10 league teams will have missed games due to coronavirus protocols or a positive test in their Tier 1 group. Navy has only played four league games.

  • Loyola (MD) junior guard Laryn Edwards had a career-high five steals in the Greyhounds’ 66-57 loss to Lafayette.

  • Bucknell is winning games by a league-leading 18.1 points per game. The team’s 8-0 start is a program record.

  • Army junior Taylor Sullivan scored 14.5 points per game in a weekend sweep over Colgate which included a 19-point and 11-rebound effort—her second career double-double.

  • Sophomore forward Emily McAteer has reached double figures in four of Loyola (MD)’s five games played.

  • Senior guard Sophie Gatzounas leads Navy in minutes played per game at 37.9, has started in all seven games she’s played, and is posting 16.6 points and 7.6 rebounds per game.

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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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