Lafayette’s Justin DeBerry has it made for a Patriot League point guard. Third in the conference in assists, he can look to the wing for Winston Davis, a 55 percent three-point shooter in PL games.
Or he can look to the post for 6-foot-10 Rob Dill, who seemingly can’t miss in the paint with 62 percent shooting.
Or he can look to himself, the league’s top scorer and third-best three-point shooter.
With scorers running deep, it’s no wonder DeBerry and the Leopards (14-4, 5-0 PL) have shot up to first place in the PL.
AU (10-9, 4-1PL) will look to contain offensive-minded Lafayette Friday evening in Bender as the Eagles vie for a share of first place in the conference.
Limiting DeBerry’s chances will be key for AU. The Eagles won the season series last year 2-1. DeBerry scored only six points total in AU’s wins, but 29 in the loss.
AU senior guard Andres Rodriguez, who will be facing off with DeBerry for the seventh time in his career, said the only way he knew how to describe the Lafayette guard was as a smart player.
“He knows his weaknesses and strengths, and he plays toward his strengths,” Rodriguez said. “He has a really good outside shot, so when your hands are down he will knock it in and he has the confidence to shoot it.”
AU head coach Jeff Jones said it will take more than just tight coverage of DeBerry to keep his production low. An intelligent, natural shooter, he has a knack for hitting shots even with a defender in his face.
“I don’t know that we so much as stopped [DeBerry] last year [in the wins over Lafayette] as we really disrupted things and kind of disrupted their timing at the offensive end,” Jones said. “We need that same type of effort. He’s a very good player, so we can play great defense, and he still has the ability of hitting some tough shots. But we’ve got to make him work for everything he gets.”
DeBerry is joined by seniors Mike Farrell, Davis and Dill on the Leopard’s veteran starting lineup. The core of experience has returned Lafayette to contender status now that Holy Cross’ league hegemony has evaporated.
The Leopards went 31-5 in PL play between 1998 and 2000. They won three consecutive regular season PL titles between 1998 and 2000, including back-to-back NCAA appearances and 20-win seasons. Since their fall from the top, they finished in fifth place for two years and sixth last year.
But with the Crusaders graduating three of their top players last spring, the Leopards have risen to first behind their seniors.
Jones said he believes their offense is the best in the league, as they average a league-leading 77.3 points per contest. They have already proven themselves against the conference elite in a 111-104 overtime shootout at home on Jan. 23 versus previously undefeated Lehigh.
“Everybody knows they’re the team to beat,” Rodriguez said. “They have a lot of seniors on the squad, so I think they’re the most experienced. We’ve just got to give the best effort because I think this game means more for the championship than any other game that we have coming up.”
The outcome of Friday’s game has major implications for AU’s place in the standings. Clinching first place at the end of the season is crucial, as it ensures home court advantage in the conference championship, which has only been won once by the visiting team.
A win Friday would guarantee AU at least a tie for first place. If Lehigh (11-7, 4-1) loses in Bethlehem, Pa. to Holy Cross (8-10, 2-3), the Eagles will have sole possession of first place. If the Mountain Hawks win, there will be a three-way tie for the top spot between AU, Lafayette and Lehigh.
“There’s a lot of basketball to be played yet, and this weekend, after the Sunday game, is the midpoint,” Jones said. “It certainly would be nice for us if we could be in position to have first place, or at least a piece of first place.”
A loss would put AU’s bid for first place in jeopardy because it would place even more importance on winning against Lafayette at the Kirby Sports Center, a 3,500-seat gym usually filled almost to capacity for conference games.
Back-to-back losses to the Leopards would give the Eagles at least three losses. Only five of the last 13 PL champions have had three or more league losses.
The Eagles hope to match the intensity of Lafayette’s home crowd with a home-court advantage of their own at Bender.
“Hopefully we can have a big crowd and have the kind of home court advantage that some of these other schools have when we have to go up there,” Jones said. “That can be the difference between winning and losing and can kind of energize the team to perform at a higher level.”