Fifty-four percent. That’s what the Holy Cross Crusaders shot in their 74-55 drubbing of the AU women’s basketball team two weeks ago. That kind of effort won’t get it done when the Eagles travel to Worcester, Mass., to play Holy Cross in the first round of the Patriot League Tournament Thursday night.
“We have to play better defense than we’ve played all year,” said Eagles head coach Melissa McFerrin. “If we can keep them in the 50s, like we did up at their place, we have a shot, but if they score 70 again, it’s going to be very tough for us.”
The key to the Eagles’ success will undoubtedly be the play of their two freshman frontcourt players, Tish Curry and Sahar Nusseibeh. The two were thoroughly outplayed in the last meeting, as Holy Cross center Kaitlyn Foley scored 22 points and grabbed seven rebounds. The Eagles pair combined for just 14 points.
“The post players have to come through better than they did in the last game,” McFerrin said. “They have to be quicker on defense and give us something on the offensive end.”
The Eagles will look to take advantage of a Crusader team that isn’t particularly strong from the outside and is susceptible to a quick, trapping defense.
When the Eagles were in Worcester last month, they pressed their way to a close game and lost by only four points, 59-55. A similar effort in the postseason tournament may give them a chance to win.
The best thing McFerrin’s squad has going is its youth. While some may say they’re not battle-tested, they also don’t know the allure of Holy Cross, or the dominance it has had over AU recently.
The five freshman who will see time, Curry, Nusseibeh, point guard Pam Stanfield, sharpshooter Nicole Ryan and sparkplug Talicia Jackson, have all played at the Hart Center and could be ready to pull off an upset.
AU will look to stop the strong guard play of Jessica Conte and Brittany Keil, as well as the veteran leadership of Sarah Placek off the bench.
“Keil is a shooter and we have to contain her and Foley if we want to beat this team,” McFerrin said.
Tara Williams, the lone Eagles veteran right now, will likely be in charge of stopping Keil, while Nusseibeh and Curry will tag-team Foley.
The winner of the Holy Cross-AU game will face the winner of the Bucknell-Lehigh game, which should be a high-scoring affair. The Bison have the advantage coming in, but Lehigh upset Bucknell last week, 56-55, in Lewisburg, Pa.
If Sara Ellis and Jenny Callan get hot, the Mountain Hawks could upset the struggling Bison, who led the league for much of the year before fading down the stretch.
In the other side of the bracket, top-seeded Army plays host to Lafayette and also hosts the game between Colgate and Navy, the fourth and fifth seeds.
On Tuesday, the all-Patriot League teams were announced. Tala Hadavi made the all-league second team, while Nusseibeh was on the all-rookie team.
“I was very pleased to see Tala make the second team and Sahar was very deserving of the all-rookie honor,” McFerrin said. “I thought you could have made a case for Tish to be on the rookie team also, but this is what opposing coaches think.”
With Hadavi out for the tournament with a knee injury, the pressure falls to the freshmen to come through, led by the inside play of Curry and Nusseibeh, the consistency of Stanfield and the offensive firepower of Jackson and Ryan.
Either way, McFerrin knows this weekend’s tournament action will be fast-paced, and that sometimes, the wonderful thing about youngsters is that they don’t yet know their limits.