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Patriot League notebook: Quarterfinal previews and game breakdowns

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The Patriot League quarterfinals are set, and there isn’t a favorite in sight. All four matchups are wide-open, and fans should expect this tournament will not go to chalk.

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On Saturday, Navy and Bucknell each punched a ticket to the quarterfinal madness with impressive performances in the opening round. The Mids dispatched Lafayette 67-45 in Annapolis, outpacing a Leopards team that hit a wall about midway through the second quarter and never threatened. Navy heads to Hamilton to face No. 2 Colgate, where it dropped a 73-56 decision in early January.

Bucknell is playing its best basketball of the season and found an offensive spark that fueled a 77-71 win over American. Can it keep its easy-going attack and ride its new energy past the top seed? Defending champion Holy Cross awaits the resurgent Bison for a showdown in Worcester. 

Monday Madness has arrived, and it’s time to break down each matchup in our quarterfinals notebook.

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Defending champion Crusaders ready for the new season

No. 8 Bucknell vs. No. 1 Holy Cross

Monday’s Bucknell–Holy Cross matchup feels like more than a quarterfinal; it has the makeup of a championship final. Each team can get the big stops on defense and understands how to win. The makeup of each team is different, but this season they’re connected by their relationship to confidence: the champion Crusaders in their battle to keep theirs through an up-and-down season and Bucknell in its fight to grow it as a young squad.

Now they’ll face off in the playoffs, one with the confidence of a champion and the other with the belief of an upstart. Expect each team’s best game in this round; this is one to watch.

Players to watch: Holy Cross senior Bronagh Power-Cassidy (16.6 ppg, 4.8 rpg). Down the stretch, she willed her Crusaders to a first-place finish. Over the final five games, the team leaned on Power-Cassidy’s savvy playmaking, and she responded by logging 33.8 minutes, scoring 24.2 points and grabbing 4.0 rebounds per game. Clutch. She’s the one to watch — just not the only one.

Holy Cross needs more consistency from its scorers, and in playoff games that means an aggressive, attacking mentality. The quiet contribution of sophomore guard Kaitlyn Flanagan has been brilliant since her arrival in Worcester, and her game is ready for what’s next: looking to score more. She’s posted four straight games in double digits, the longest stretch of her career. Keep your eye on Flanagan; she’s a difference-maker and key to a Crusader victory.

Emma Theodorsson is the heart of the Bison lineup. The 6’1 guard is the team’s most versatile scorer and can carry the load on offense when she’s in her groove. Her 31-point effort against Boston University in January highlighted her ability to score on the block, in the midrange and from deep. 

The emergence of sophomore point guard Blake Matthews — four straight double-digit scoring efforts, including a career-high 17 points in the 77-71 first-round win over American — makes containing Theodorsson a little more complicated. Take note of Matthews in this matchup.

The key stat: All the key stats are connected to what happens in the lane. In the teams’ first contest in Worcester, the home crowd was treated to a dominant effort inside, the Crusaders winning the points in the paint battle 28-16 with a 15-7 edge on the offensive boards.

What did Bucknell do better in Round 2 to push Holy Cross to overtime? Better interior play on both ends. The Bison squared up the visitors 18-18 on paint points and kept their defeat on the offensive boards to an 8-5 margin. 

Bucknell has found its rotation and is playing the best basketball in the league right now. Can forwards Ashley Sofilkanich and Grace Sullivan win the battle inside against the trio of Janelle Allen, Lindsay Berger and Callie Wright? Those numbers won’t lie.

Holy Cross guard Kaitlyn Flanagan dribbles the basketball while a defender chases her
Sophomore guard Kaitlyn Flanagan and the Crusaders have their eyes on a second straight league title. (Photo credit: Mark Seliger Photography)

How Holy Cross wins: Experience counts. The Crusaders have endured all the mental challenges that come with trying to repeat as champions, and it’s been an up-and-down season, sometimes without answers at the ready. But no team benefits more from the arrival of league playoffs and the emotional reset it brings than Holy Cross. The end-of-season mental and emotional fatigue tends to give way to a more focused enthusiasm when a team can see the finish line — and its goal — within reach. This is an experienced and senior-led team that’s ready to use its championship DNA to make its best push of the year. It’s a reset for a repeat.

How Bucknell wins: Belief is a powerful thing. Bucknell is emotionally and mentally in its best position of the season. The Bison rotation is set, the roles are understood and the lineup is finally healthy. What has the confluence of those factors meant this late season? Belief. The team has won eight of its last 11, including dropping one at the buzzer to Colgate and one in overtime to Holy Cross. Bucknell believes, and that means trouble for opponents.

Bottom line: This game should be a championship. Expect it to play out with that type of intensity.

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Loyola versus Lehigh is all about Lex Therien

No. 5 Lehigh at No. 4 Loyola

There is no single game in the quarterfinal round that centers around one player more than the Lehigh-Loyola matchup. Lex Therien has dominated the Mountain Hawks this season. The good news is that the game plan for Lehigh is simple: Stop Therien. The bad news: It ain’t that easy.

In their head-to-head games this season, Therien posted 64 points on 28-for-37 shooting, grabbed 19 rebounds and led the team to an average of 83 points an outing. The First-Team All-Patriot selection is averaging 16.1 points and 10.4 rebounds per game while shooting 56.1% from the floor. 

If Lehigh can’t contain or slow down Therien, it’ll have to make the game all about offense and making threes, which suits their philosophy of pace-and-space. But can the league’s highest scoring team (69.4 ppg) win a shootout on the road in Baltimore?

Players to watch: Lehigh’s Ella Stemmer is a streaky shooter who can get hot in the blink of an eye and devastate opponents from 3-point distance. She leads the team in scoring with 13.7 points an outing and has attempted 214 threes. She made 10 3-pointers in an early nonconference battle with the University of Pittsburgh. If Stemmer is finding her range from deep, Lehigh will be a tough out.

Therien is the key for the Greyhounds, and her gravitational pull on the offensive end is the most important piece to the puzzle. The junior post’s presence creates open looks for others, and Loyola’s ability to capitalize on those chances is where it will win or lose this matchup. So who are the key players in Therien’s orbit? Guards Laura Salmeron (9.4 ppg) and Kelly Ratigan (8.9 ppg) are the players to watch on the perimeter.

The key stat: The 3-point line. Lehigh has attempted a league-high 760 threes this season. The Mountain Hawks are all in for winning games with high volume attempts from deep, but they didn’t get the best of the action behind the arc in the previous two games, despite facing a Loyola squad that is more focused on inside play — taking just 401 threes for ninth-lowest in the league.

In Round 1 in Bethlehem, the Mountain Hawks were 5-for-22 in a 73-65 loss. Loyola also converted five 3s (5-for-13). In the rematch, Therien had an epic, 44-point outing that created open looks for the Greyhounds on the perimeter as they went on to post a 9-for-15 effort from distance. Lehigh shot 8-for-21. Lehigh has to win the perimeter, and stats from distance will tell the story.

Lehigh’s Maddie Albrecht holds the basketball as a defender looks on
Maddie Albrecht and the Mountain Hawks hope the third time is the charm in Charm City. (Photo credit: Lehigh Athletic Communications)

How Lehigh wins: Defense. The Mountain Hawks are going to push tempo and take a lot of 3-pointers. Their offense is going to put pressure on Loyola. But to win, Lehigh has to make the commitment on the defensive end, specifically with post position. The team cannot allow Therien to walk to her spot down low without resistance. It won’t matter if they come with a double team on the catch or the bounce, or front her in the post and sit the weak-side help in tight behind. Therien is too strong and efficient as a finisher to allow her to catch the ball on her spots in the low post. If Lehigh can engage its leverage earlier on defense, it’ll limit those offensive opportunities for Loyola.

How Loyola wins: Limit turnovers. In the last five games, the Greyhounds have totaled 79 turnovers (15.8 per game) and lost three of those contests. They cannot give Lehigh live-ball turnovers and extra possessions that turn into transition attacks for open 3-pointers. Consistency with ball-control issues is priority one. In its 93-76 victory over Lehigh the last time these two teams faced each other, Loyola committed seven turnovers. Its next game, against Navy, the squad committed 21 and lost 53-51. 

Bottom line: Coach of the Year Danielle O’Banion has led her program to a top-four finish and a home game in the quarterfinals. Can Loyola meet the moment, or will Lehigh find an answer on defense? Reitz Arena is a tough place to play, but don’t be surprised to see an upset in this one.

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Colgate seeks playoff redemption, first up is Navy 

No. 7 Navy vs. No. 2 Colgate

It’s been a 12-month wait for Colgate to arrive at its moment of redemption, and it seems very familiar: at home in the quarterfinals, facing a service academy and favored to win. 

Last season, Army pulled off a 55-50 playoff upset over the Raiders behind the inside play of forward Sabria Hunter, who finished the game with 16 points and 13 rebounds. It was a physical, defensive-oriented game, which suited the style of the Raiders, but a 31.4% effort from the field sealed their fate.

Expect a different outcome this time around. 

Navy arrives at Cotterell Court with its own upset-minded crew, but it’ll be facing No. 2 Colgate, which has been the most consistent team in the league from start to finish. None of its eight conference losses have been by more than eight points, and its average margin of defeat in those setbacks has been 4.3 points. The Raiders are in every game.

Navy has evolved over the season in the way good, young teams do — with plenty of mistakes, highs and lows, but with a dreamer’s outlook at playoff time. Now they’ve arrived as a dangerous underdog behind the play of Patriot League Rookie of the Year Zanai Barnett-Gay and fellow freshman Kyah Smith.

Navy has won five out of its last six games and is a different team than it was a month ago. Does it have what it takes to pull off an upset in the quarterfinals? Head coach Tim Taylor already has a feather in his cap from his program’s buzzer-beating upset of top-seed Holy Cross in 2022. Can he push the right buttons again?

Players to watch: Colgate graduate student Alexa Brodie is the one to watch for the Raiders. Her 1-for-11 performance from the field in last season’s quarterfinals is in the rear-view mirror, but no doubt fuel for the fire to lead the home team to victory.

Brodie was recently named Second-Team All-Patriot League and to the All-Defensive Team. The point guard is scoring 10.1 points and dishing 2.7 assists per game. She will likely draw the defensive assignment of one or both of Navy’s breakout freshmen, Barnett-Gay and Smith. Her performance on both ends is the most impactful on the outcome.

The Mids’ player to watch is Smith. Colgate’s defense will be likely focused on closing penetrating gaps and loading up on Barnett-Gay’s playmaking toward the paint. Smith should get plenty of opportunities to play off how the defense will tilt toward her freshman teammate and have multiple chances to impact the game. In two games versus the Raiders this season, Smith averaged 15.0 points an outing but on 13-for-37 shooting. A more efficient effort from Smith could be the difference for the Mids.

Navy’s Zanai Barnett-Gay takes the ball in for a layup
Navy’s dynamic backcourt duo of freshmen Zanai Barnett-Gay (4) and Kyah Smith has the Mids believing in a playoff push. (Photo credit: Phil Hoffmann | Navy Athletics)

The key stat: Rebounding. In conference play, Colgate is tops in rebounding margin at +4.2, while Navy is last in the league at -1.8. The Raiders were +10 in their 73-56 win and +16 in their 59-58 loss. If Navy can’t improve its ability to rebound versus the Raiders, it will be a long day in Hamilton for the visitors.

How Navy wins: Navy has to give its best game defending the perimeter to win. In its 73-56 loss in January, the defense allowed the Raiders to shoot 9-for-10 from behind the arc. In their 59-58 win in February, the Mids held them to 4-for-9 from distance. Navy will have to improve its own marksmanship to keep up, too: The Mids were a combined 1-for-21 in their two matchups.

How Colgate wins: The Raiders must keep their focus and poise; it’s really about them. They are the better team, at home and well-rested. Colgate is the top shooting team in league play at 45.1%, facing an opponent who is next to last, at 37.3%. The team’s maturity and last season’s experience losing to Army at home should sharpen its focus. It’s Colgate’s game to win. 

Bottom line: It’s one of the more intriguing quarterfinal games and a matchup of contrasting styles. If you’re looking for an upset here, you’re unlikely to find it. But in March, strange things can happen.

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Army and Boston meet again to renew a playoff rivalry

No. 6 Army at No. 3 Boston University

Monday’s matchup will be the third straight season the Black Knights and Terriers have faced off in the playoffs. Boston has won five of its last seven games, including a 72-64 win over Army on Valentine’s Day. Army entered the playoffs having lost four of its last five outings, but earned a split with the Terriers this year.

Last season’s epic semifinal moved to overtime before the Terriers pitched a 16-0 shutout in the extra frame behind 21 points and 14 rebounds from forward Caitlin Weimar. Army guard Reese Ericson scored 19 points. Is there more drama on tap?

Both squads have had to navigate injuries and the inconsistent play that can accompany changes in lineups, but both own wins over the top two seeds in the tournament: Holy Cross and Colgate. There’s plenty of firepower here.

The Terriers are led by Patriot League Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year Weimar (18.5 ppg, 10.5 rpg) and First-Team All-Patriot League guard Alex Giannaros (14.1 ppg, 44.1% 3PT FG). The Boston defense is second in conference play, allowing opponents to shoot just 38.5% from the field.

Army has been sparked by the play of junior guard Trinity Hardy (11.5 ppg and 5.6 rpg) and a freshmen class that has made an immediate impact, notably behind the play of Fiona Hastick (9.1 ppg and 4.4 rpg) and Kya Smith (9.4 ppg and 7.4 rpg).

Players to watch: Boston University’s Caitlin Weimar has proved herself to be the best player in the league this season and an elite competitor. She’ll be the focus of Army’s defense, but the player to watch is junior sharpshooter Alex Giannaros.

The Brockton product brings a presence to the floor and a threat from deep (67-for-152 from 3) that keeps the Terriers on balance — and they’ll need her offense to overcome Army. Her playmaking and shooting elevate the confidence of the players around her. A big game from Giannaros, and the Terriers should advance.

Army’s player to watch is Fiona Hastick. The freshman wing has had a breakout season and was named to the Patriot League All-Rookie Team. She had 16 points in her last visit to Case Gymnasium, and the Black Knights will need her to avoid foul trouble (she fouled out of eight games this season), stretch the Terriers’ defense from three (31-for-83 for 37.3%) and pressure the defense off the dribble.

The key stat: Offensive boards. Army’s rebounding effort is among the best in the league, and it is just one of three teams to have a positive rebounding margin in conference play (+0.8). In two games versus the Terriers, the Black Knights have held a 33-7 edge in offensive boards. While the discrepancy is due in part to the different shooting abilities of the teams (Boston shoots 42.7% in league action, Army just 37.1%), it’s a trend that could turn a comfortable playoff win into a risky, nail-biter finish.

How Army wins: Army has improved its ball control this season, and its +2.22 turnover margin is a reflection of a more disciplined offense and a defense that can turn opponents over with pressure. If the Black Knights can earn enough extra possessions to make up for their poor shooting, they may just tough out a road playoff win.

How Boston wins: Playing a more patient game. Army wants the chaos and the pace, but the Terriers have the edge in superior ball movement in the half court on offense and the presence of a fantastic rim protector in Weimar on defense. The Terriers don’t have the same weapons they enjoyed a season ago during their run to the conference championship, but this year’s team moves the ball more freely and makes more effective use of Weimar’s talents as a passer. A focus on half-court execution, and Boston should be on its way to the semifinals.

Bottom line: It’s an uphill battle for Army, but this one could go either way.

Final Standings

(League record, overall record)

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

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Tune in to Patriot League action this week

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

Quarterfinal round, March 11

No. 7 Navy at No. 2 Colgate @ 6 p.m.

No. 6 Army at No. 3 Boston University @ 6:10p.m.

No. 8 Bucknell at No. 1 Holy Cross @ 7 p.m.

No. 5 Lehigh at No. 4 Loyola (MD) @ 7:10 p.m.

Semifinal round, March 14

No. 4/5 winner vs. No. 1/8 winner
No. 3/6 winner vs. No. 2/7 winner

Patriot League championship game, March 17

Championship game @ 12 p.m. (CBS Sports Network)                        

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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