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Patriot League notebook: Boston U-Holy Cross title game preview

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The stage is set for a rematch of last season’s epic and entertaining championship game as the defending champion Holy Cross Crusaders and the resilient Boston University Terriers square off for the title at noon ET on Sunday on CBS Sports Network. The league’s best has risen to the top again in the matchup Massachusetts basketball fans had hoped for — it’s a Turnpike Trophy tilt, but with everything on the line.

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How did a season of chaos and parity end up with the top two picks in the preseason poll squaring off in the final? Defense and experience. 

The Crusaders and Terriers each put the defensive clamps on the opposition in the semifinals and dictated the game to their respective style. Can we expect the same type of game for their third and final showdown this season?

The two teams split the season series, each winning at home just like last season. A year ago, the underdog Crusaders pulled the upset against the top-seeded Terriers on their home court in the final. Can Boston return the favor in Worcester now that the script is flipped?

Terrier and Crusader fans, pack your snacks and your radar detector for a run down the Mass Pike, exit 10. Just follow the noise to the top of the hill. It’s championship Sunday at the Hart Center with the league’s best rivalry on display.

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Holy Cross sophomore Simone Foreman totaled 22 rebounds in two games versus Boston University this season. Foreman’s spark off the bench is vital to the Crusader title hopes. (Photo credit: Rob Branning Photography)

Big game experience helped the Crusaders top Loyola

Holy Cross locked down Loyola and attacked with pace from the opening tip in a 72-54 victory. Loyola got swept up early in the high-tempo start and never consistently found its rhythm on offense or utilized its star forward, Lex Therien, to her best effect. Therien took just six shots and grabbed seven rebounds.

Head coach Maureen Magarity and staff brought the post double-teams when needed and held the Greyhounds to 37.7% from the floor. The speedy and relentless play of senior Cara McCormack in the early going framed the storyline: if you’re going to beat us, you’ll have to do it playing our own game. The senior guard was 6-for-11 from the floor, hit four three-pointers and totaled 16 points.

Senior captain Bronagh Power-Cassidy somehow always manages to play spectacularly in the most under-the-radar way. She poured in 20 points on 6-for-10 shooting and grabbed eight rebounds. Her steady presence was the thread to her team’s success yet again.

The post player trio of Janelle Allen, Callie Wright and Lindsay Berger got the best of the Greyhound bigs and presented a physical and discipline front on the interior. The three combined for 15 points and 17 rebounds, forcing a visibly frustrated Therien to foul out in the fourth quarter.

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Boston University Head coach Melissa Graves and her staff came up with a game plan that flipped a 37-point loss to Colgate into a 12-point win eight days later. The Terriers head to the championship final for the second consecutive season. (Photo credit: Wake Forest Athletic Communications)

Graves, staff earn an A+ in the semifinal

Following a 37-point loss to Colgate eight days earlier, Boston University coach Melissa Graves knew she had to drastically change her team’s approach for her squad’s return trip to Hamilton in the semifinal, which Boston won 52-40.

A coach’s resolute commitment to their X’s and O’s is admirable, but the willingness to change and adapt is the foundation of championship coaching. No path to the title is a straight line and the Terriers have expertly zig-zagged their way into the final behind their coaching staff’s game planning.

Everyone feels their nerves in the contests that count the most. But what a big game eventually teaches all competitors: you have to find a way to win the moment and make the changes to accomplish success whether it’s the first quarter or last. It’s not the same as a regular season game — the urgency and stakes change all that. Big games can limit your vision and quicken the internal and external clock of both players and coaches. The Terriers learned from their experience in last year’s championship final and it showed versus the Raiders.

Colgate head coach Ganiyat Adeduntan encountered the toughest challenge a coach can face in a big game: the test to adjust the game plan away from what has worked in the past in order to win the possessions in front of you. They didn’t, while Graves and the Terriers came with the right adjustments. BU switched all screens and handoffs when necessary and challenged Colgate to find and exploit the available mismatch. They never did.

Boston’s defensive scheme to switch everything and plug up ball side gaps frustrated the Raiders and forced them into a lot of contested one-on-one jumpers that were out of rhythm and off timing. The Terriers kept them from going downhill all game.

The shooting numbers told the story: on its home floor, Colgate shot just 20.3% (12-for-59) and committed 14 turnovers. The Raider starting guards combined to shoot 4-for-31 from the field.

Boston was led by senior Caitlin Weimar who played brilliantly when her team needed her the most. The league’s Player of the Year punched her squad’s ticket to the final with a dominating performance of 26 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks. The Raiders maintained single-coverage down low and Weimar made them pay repeatedly.

The Terriers turned the tables on the inside play in this round. In its 37-point loss, BU lost the battle in the paint 36-28. In the semifinal, the Terriers owned the game down low, winning points in the paint by an astounding 38-6 margin.

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Holy Cross senior Bronagh Power-Cassidy has her eyes on a second consecutive title. (Photo credit: Rob Branning Photography)

A wicked good rematch for the title in Worcester

Holy Cross is aiming for its 13th Patriot League title while the Terriers are looking for their first. The Crusaders have the opportunity to become the first team to win consecutive conference championships since Navy finished off a hat trick in 2013. Let’s break down this season’s history between the finalists and what to look for in the big game:

Round 1 (Jan. 29): Holy Cross tops Boston, 61-50 in Worcester

Holy Cross top performers: McCormack with 18 points, three three-pointers; Power-Cassidy with 12 points and six rebounds.

Boston top performers: Weimar with 13 points, 17 rebounds; Mingo with 15 points on four three-pointers (Note: Mingo is injured and out for the season; Anastasiia Semenova played 27 minutes but did not start).

Key stat: Holy Cross edged BU in second chance points 14-9 despite being doubled up 16-8 on the offensive boards. 

Round 2 (March 2): Boston comes back from a 21-point deficit to win 66-63 at home

Holy Cross top performers: Power-Cassidy with 15 points and four rebounds; Allen with 11 points, one rebound.

Boston top performers: Weimar with 25 points and 8 rebounds in 40 minutes of play; Alex Giannaros with 18 points on three three-pointers (Note: Mingo injured early in this game; Semenova did not play).

Key stat: The Terriers dominated points in the paint, 36-18.

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A championship chess match between familiar foes

Players to watch: Weimar has just been incredible this season; Power-Cassidy, too. They’ll both be big factors in the championship, but the key players to watch in this one are guards.

Junior guard Alex Giannaros and the Terriers head to Worcester looking for championship redemption. (Photo credit: Matt Woolverton)

For Boston, keep your eyes on Giannaros. She’s averaging 13.9 points a game and can shred a defense from distance with even a little bit of room from behind the arc. The 5’5 guard competitive will and savvy playmaking abilities make her one to watch. She can also absolutely shoot the Terriers to a championship. Stay focused on that #10 for Boston — she’s fantastic and this is her moment.

In purple and white, the players to watch are a couple of sophomores: Kaitlyn Flanagan and Foreman.

The unflappable Flanagan is just so steady on both ends for Holy Cross. Her ball handling and ability to pass and direct an offense are excellent. She’s tops in the league with 4.5 assists per game and her assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.8 in conference play is twice as good as the next player in the league’s top 10—her teammate Cara McCormack with a 1.2 ratio. Flanagan’s defense is equally good and will be a focus to watch on her close-outs to the ball on the Terrier perimeter. Don’t miss out on Flanagan.

Foreman has a big part to play in the championship and the outcome may just turn on her ability to fulfill her role. She’s the leading rebounder (8.5 rpg) in conference play for Holy Cross and third overall behind Weimar (10.9 rpg) and Lex Therien (10.2 rpg). She had 22 total rebounds in the two games against the Terriers. Expect the 5’9 Foreman to be a player to watch in this one.

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The key stat: Any stats related to the battle between the opposing forward groups — Weimar and Semenova for BU versus the trio of Allen, Wright and Berger for Holy Cross — are going to be huge. It’s going to be a very active interior both with double-teaming in the low-post and the physicality of the rebounding game.

Fans can break it down to points in the paint, offensive boards, conversion rate for the bigs or any statistic you like connected to the low post battle: the outcome will be revealed in those numbers. Points in the paint will likely rule the day.

How Boston University wins: By keeping a four-quarter mindset. Holy Cross will come out with high energy, with a good plan and experienced players willing to execute that game plan. The pace will be high and the fans exuberant.

It will settle, eventually.

The Terriers need to ride that wave and stay steady through the emotions of a potential Crusader early run. Holy Cross has been vulnerable all year to a mid-game lull, a period of the contest where the team catches its breath a bit; their offense goes away for a stretch. Boston has seen it before when it trailed by 21 points early in its home contest versus the Crusaders; BU came back to win that game. Their patience and emotional resolve in this one will be needed again.

On the chessboard, this one gets won through the post and Weimar — or more accurately, how BU can capitalize off of Holy Cross’ commitment to double her. The Crusaders will likely mix their double-teams, coming both on the catch and on the bounce at times. It will look completely different from Colgate’s approach to defending the post in the semifinal.

Weimar is an effective passer and Boston has the league’s best clutch shooter from three-point range in Giannaros. Can the Crusader defense recover to the perimeter early and often enough to keep BU from getting open shots? The Terriers win if they can hit enough threes on Weimar’s kick-outs.

If the Crusader defense hits its close-outs at a high level, the Terriers will have to adjust to win. If they can get into their offense early enough in possessions, Weimar’s ability to re-post and receive a return pass following a kick-out will be key.

How Holy Cross wins: The Crusaders need to play with poise and discipline. The pace will be high in the early going and this group needs to use its experience in big games to avoid the two things that put a back-to-back title run at risk: turnovers and foul trouble. They had issues with both in Boston’s 66-63 comeback win earlier this season.

The group’s X’s and O’s are all about their defensive rotations and how well they scramble out of the double-teams on Weimar in the low post combined with the effectiveness of their close-outs and containment of the ball on the kick-outs. Translation: Holy Cross wins if it can keep the dynamic Giannaros from posting a big number playing off the defenses tilt toward Weimar.

If Boston is tempted to switch all screens in the same manner it did in the semifinal versus Colgate, the Crusaders will need to recognize and isolate the best match-up it presents inside. If so, we may see Power-Cassidy post up more than a few times down low.

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Final Standings:

(League record, overall record)

  1. Holy Cross (11-7, 19-12)
  2. Colgate (10-8, 18-13)
  3. Boston University (10-8, 20-11)
  4. Loyola (MD) (10-8, 16-15)
  5. Lehigh (9-9, 17-13)
  6. Army (9-9, 12-17)
  7. Navy (9-9, 14-17)
  8. Bucknell (9-9, 13-18)
  9. American (8-10, 10-20)
  10. Lafayette (5-13, 10-20)

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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