For the third consecutive season, the seeding for the Empire 8 men’s basketball conference tournament came down to the final weekend of regular-season play and featured six teams clawing for just four spots.
By squeaking out a narrow 83–74 victory Feb. 20 at Elmira College, the men’s basketball team effectively eliminated the Soaring Eagles — who, at 7–7 in conference play heading into the game, would have had a shot at making the tournament if they defeated the Bombers — from tournament contention. The Blue and Gold’s win, combined with Stevens Institute of Technology’s loss to Nazareth College, secured the fourth spot in the tournament for the South Hill squad.
The Bombers, who finished with a 9–7 record against Empire 8 opponents, will face the top-seeded host, St. John Fisher College, which enters the tournament with a 14–2 conference record and has beaten the Blue and Gold both times the teams have squared off this season.
Head coach Jim Mullins said the Bombers will need to change their game plan if they want to stop the Cardinals, who feature an up-tempo offense paired with a defense that forces opponents to shoot long range.
“I think they’re a cut above everyone else in the league,” Mullins said. “We’ll be looking at tape and trying to determine what we want to do, but I think anytime you get into postseason play there’s a huge emphasis on defense and rebounding, and those have been areas that we have struggled in this year.”
Although the Blue and Gold have posted the league’s best scoring offense by averaging 78.8 points per game, they average just 36.8 rebounds per game, which ranks seventh in the conference.
Fisher features a run-and-gun style offense with a defensive emphasis on help side and guarding the paint, and Mullins said the Bombers will focus on transition defense during the practices leading up to the tournament.
Meanwhile, the South Hill squad will look to utilize its height advantage against the Cardinals. At 6 feet 8 inches, Bomber senior center Keefe Gitto will be the tallest player on the floor, and his stat line of 15.7 points and 9.3 rebounds per game should be an advantage for the Bombers because the Cardinals do not field a player taller than 6 feet 6 inches.
St. John Fisher head coach Rob Kornaker said his team will look for speed over height as it looks to advance to the championship game for the first time since 2011.
“We’re not the biggest team in the world, but we are pretty athletic and pretty long,” Kornaker said.
In the other semifinal match, second-seeded Alfred University will take on third-seeded Hartwick College, which earned the spot with a 100–88 victory over Nazareth on Feb. 21.
The Saxons, who enter the tournament with an 11–5 record in league play, feature a scoring attack led by senior forward Dalton Walsh and sophomore guard Tyler Seelman, who average 16.2 and 16.1 points per game, respectively.
However, Alfred head coach Russell Phillips said the Saxons will put the biggest emphasis on defense, utilizing the squad’s trademark matchup, trapping press to stifle the Hawks’ 75-point-per-game offense.
“With our press, that’s not something that many other teams in the league do, so it makes us a little bit more difficult to prepare for,” he said. “We try to keep teams off-balance with switching up defenses and switching screens so the press is unique for the league.”
To counter Alfred’s defense, Hartwick will look to its balanced scoring attack. Five Hawks average double figures in scoring and the Saxons will also have their hands full with Hartwick’s 6-foot-9-inch center Matt Wilson, who enters the tournament averaging 11 points and 7.3 rebounds per game.
The teams have had a week of practice to prepare for the tournament, which begins Feb. 27 at St. John Fisher in Rochester, New York. Kornaker said the home court advantage should play a huge role in Fisher’s chances in the tournament, especially against the Bombers in the semifinal match.
“Coach Mullins is a really good coach, so he probably knows our strengths and weaknesses coming into this game,” he said. “Our advantage is playing on our home court. It gets loud in there, and it’s pretty small and cramped … but honestly I think any [team] is capable of winning this thing.”
Another regular season has come to an end, and the women’s basketball team finds itself in familiar territory. The Bombers currently stand alone in first place in the Empire 8 conference and are getting set to host their fourth conference championship in the last five years. Having home-court advantage is a huge plus for the Blue and Gold, as they have posted a 58–5 record at Ben Light Gymnasium in the last five seasons.
Senior guard Samantha Klie said getting the top seed in the conference and securing home court advantage has been a priority from the beginning of the season.
“Playing on our home court for the tournament is something we set out to do from day one because we want to have our school behind us at the game, which is huge to have that support,” Klie said. “I think either way though, it comes down to our mentality going into the game and just how prepared we can be for the weekend is what will get us going.”
Joining the Bombers this year in the Empire 8 tournament are two programs that have consistently been in the top four teams each year. St. John Fisher College and Stevens Institute of Technology are making their fifth straight appearances in the conference tournament. The Bombers come into this year’s tournament having won the last three conference championships. Stevens last won the tournament in the 2010–11 season, while St. John Fisher hasn’t won since the 2005–06 season. The fourth team is Nazareth College, which hasn’t appeared in a conference tournament since the 1999–2000 season.
The Bombers will play fourth-seeded Nazareth on Feb. 27 in the semifinal round of the tournament, while second-seeded Stevens will play third-seeded St. John Fisher. The winners of both games will meet in the championship Feb. 28. Each team brings a specific strength to the tournament this year.
Nazareth College, which posts a 10–6 record in league play, enters its first conference tournament in 15 years. The Golden Flyers shot their way into fourth place in the conference by leading the league in 3-point field goal percentage at 33.3 percent, and 3-pointers made per game with 6.8. Junior center Lindsey Kelly and junior guard Veronica Peck lead Nazareth’s offensive attack. Nazareth has lost both of its games against the Bombers when the two have met this season.
The Bombers, however, have had a tough time keeping Kelly off the glass, as she is averaging 13.5 rebounds in the two games against the Blue and Gold. Peck has also had success against the college as of late as she scored 18 points in the last meeting.
Freshman guard Jordan Beers said preparing for Kelly and the outstanding 3-point shooting of Nazareth is something that needs to be addressed in the team’s game plan.
“We stress the importance of taking away every player’s strength and finishing every play with a rebound,” she said.
St. John Fisher, which enters the tournament with a 12–4 conference record, is the only team to beat the Bombers in conference play. The Cardinals hold the highest scoring offense in the conference at 72.5 points per game. Leading the charge for the Cardinals is senior guard Portia Velasco and junior guard Mary Kate Cusack. Velasco ranks sixth all-time in scoring in St. John Fisher history with just over 1,400 points in her career. Cusack just recently hit the 1,000-point mark against Alfred University on Feb. 17. Cusack leads Fisher’s attack this year, averaging 16.5 points per game, ranking second-best in the Empire 8, while Velasco averages 14.9 points per game, ranking sixth in the conference.
Fisher head coach Marianne O’Connor Ermi said she is well aware that her offense has been successful this season, but credits the defense, which she said helps the offense get easy transition looks.
“When we are aggressive with our defense and turning our opponent over, we create a lot of our offense,” Ermi said. “Our pressure defense leads to more scoring opportunities.”
At 14–2 in conference play, Stevens possesses the best defense in the league, holding opponents to 54.1 points per game. The Ducks also lead the conference in defensive field goal percentage, holding opponents to 32.2 percent from the field.
Leading Stevens on the offensive side is junior guard Kaitlyn Astel. Astel averages 16.6 points per game, which ranks first in the conference. As a team, Stevens also leads the conference in offensive field goal percentage at 42.4 percent.
Key for the Bombers heading into the semifinal match is going to be keeping Nazareth off the boards and keeping their offensive leaders in check if they want to be successful in their first game.
Klie said she and her teammates have been preparing a little differently for this conference playoff game than they did for games during the regular season. She said a slightly altered game plan on offense will help the Blue and Gold against the Flyers.
“In terms of a game plan we’ve put in a couple new looks offensively, which is something we’re focusing on a lot this week,” Klie said. “Also, just getting ready to go both mentally and physically.”