With only six games remaining in the regular season for the men’s basketball team, its goal of winning the Empire 8 conference regular season championship is within its grasp.
The Bombers currently sit atop the standings — a half-game ahead of St. John Fisher College, one game ahead of Hartwick College and one and a half games ahead of Stevens Institute of Technology — with one game still to play against each opponent. Head Coach Jim Mullins said the main focus is on the next game against Utica College on Saturday.
The Pioneers handed the Bombers one of their two conference losses this season, snapping the Blue and Gold’s nine-game winning streak and ending a four-game losing streak of their own in an 85–81 clash Jan. 11.
“We just didn’t show up to play,” Mullins said. “We’re going to be motivated because we know what they’re capable of doing, and they showed they have the talent and athleticism to beat us.”
Junior guard Jordan Marcus, who scored a game-high 27 points in the losing effort, said the Bombers have been looking forward to this game in the weeks since the loss.
“At that point in the season we were probably playing our best basketball,” he said. “They’re a tough matchup because they have a lot of speed, and we’re more of a spot-up shooting team. If we’re able to control the tempo and pace of the game and not let them run all over us we should be OK.”
Mullins, who stressed the importance of last weekend’s games — an 88–86 win at Nazareth College on Friday and an 81–76 win at Rochester Institute of Technology on Saturday — said the victories got the team back on track after a tough 100–96 overtime loss to Hartwick on Jan. 22.
“We really persevered under difficult circumstances,” Mullins said. “We fought back against Nazareth the whole game, and we couldn’t put Rochester away. It was really the first time all season that we had really got involved in a gut-check situation on the road and did what we had to do to win.”
Sophomore forward Andrei Oztemel, who hit six of 14 three-point attempts in the games against Nazareth and RIT and is shooting 42 percent from beyond the arc this season, said these are the games the Bombers know they must win to get where they want to go.
“Conference-wise, winning these games kept us in first place, but it was even bigger after coming off of a tough loss at home,” Oztemel said. “Going on the road is always tough no matter where you play. We were pretty down all week and just didn’t want the feeling to carry over to the next set of games.”
Marcus said the game is even more important because it will be senior night for the South Hill squad.
“We really want to come out strong for Phil [Barera] and Chris [Cruz-Rivas] knowing that it is going to be one of the last games they play at home,” Marcus said. “This is a special game for them, and we know what we have to do to beat Utica.”
With less than a quarter of the season remaining, the Bombers have established themselves as the team to beat in the conference. Oztemel said now it’s about finishing what they started.
“Do I think we’re the team to beat?” Oztemel said. “Yes, but we’ve also lost twice in the conference this season. We hate losing and the feeling that goes with it, and in order to host the conference tournament we can’t afford to lose any more games.”