Lakers head to SUNYAC semifinal

Photo by Billy Reese | The Oswegonian

The Oswego State men’s basketball team had a trifecta of big wins this weekend: a big comeback victory over Buffalo State, 78-73, a dominating effort on Senior Night against SUNY Fredonia, 75-44, and a first-round playoff victory over SUNY New Paltz, 73-62.

The first game of the weekend against Buffalo State was a bit of a scare, and threatened the Lakers’ perfect conference record. They were down 10 with less than seven minutes to go in the second half, and things were looking pretty grim. During those last few minutes The Lakers used superior rebounding and defense to climb back, and eventually take the lead. The Lakers held Buffalo State scoreless in those final 7 minutes while scoring 15 straight points to seal the deal.

“Our guys showed a lot of resolve, being down 10 with four minutes to go, and being able to come back and win this game,” coach Jason Leone said. “It was indicative of our team’s effort all year.”

The Lakers scored nine of their 15 points off offensive rebounds during the stretch, which included a clutch 3-pointer by junior forward Hayden Ward to tie the game and four consecutive free throws to take the lead and ice the victory.

The Lakers went back and forth with Buffalo State in the first half, and had a lot of trouble containing junior forward Jake Simmons, who had 22 points in the first half and finished off the game with 30. Despite their difficulties throughout the game, the Lakers were able to clamp down and show why they haven’t lost a game in conference this year.

Leone was particularly impressed with the team’s ability to execute and play its game despite being down by double digits.

“I was very impressed with our guys resolve and determination,” he said. “We got stops when we needed to and executed our offense. It was a great win. The biggest reason why we won is because we played the full 40 minutes.”

The next day, the seniors took the court prior to the game to be honored and celebrated for their accomplishments on Senior Day.

“The best way to describe the seniors, in winning 32 straight games in conference, is how great their intangibles are. You can’t put into value how good of people, students and leaders they are.” Leone said. “It will be impossible to replace those kinds of players.”

Following a short ceremony in their honor, they treated the game against Fredonia as a victory lap. The Lakers led from start to finish in the one-sided 75-44 victory. At one point in the second half, the Lakers led by as many as 36 points. The seniors were pulled with 6 minutes to go in the game, and were able to walk off to a standing ovation.

The win meant that the Lakers finished with a perfect 18-0 record in conference. Ward and Gilkes each scored a game-high 14 points. Senior forward Chad Burridge scored seven points in his brief 19 minutes on the court. Senior forward Damien Goodwin chipped in 10 points for the Blue Devils in the losing effort.

The Lakers as a whole shot a dazzling 50.9 percent from the field and forced the Blue Devils into 10 turnovers.

“We are really playing our best basketball at the end of the year, and we got a lot better from a month from now,” Leone said.  “It makes me really proud as a coach to see this kind of improvement.”

On Tuesday night, the Lakers took the court for the most important game of the season, their first round SUNYAC playoff game against New Paltz. The Lakers defeated New Paltz both times they played during the regular season, but coach Leone refused to allow his team to underestimate the Hawks. “The most important thing in post-season game[s] is to respect and value the fact that the games will be played at a higher level.” Leone said.

The Lakers started the game with a 15-4 run in which Ward scored nine points. New Paltz constantly nipped at the Lakers heels, but Oswego State was able to hold back the comeback attempts. The key to the Hawks’ comeback effort was some costly turnovers from the Lakers, along with some poor free throw shooting and shot selection.

The Lakers led 29-14 with 11 left in the half, but New Paltz went on a 12-4 run to trim the lead to single digits. During the run, the Lakers had some problems with turnovers and broke down defensively.

“I was upset with some of the contested perimeter jumpers our guys were taking,” Leone said. “When we went back to going inside, the game really swung back in our favor.”

The Lakers answered with their own 13-2 run, spanning from the end of the first half and going into the second half, to build their lead back up to 46-28, but the Hawks refused to give in. After the score hit 52-37, the Hawks went on a 13-4 run to come within six, but Ward, Burridge and Gilkes made one final push to win the game.

Those three scored 28 of the Lakers’ last 31 points to seal the win, and made some huge shots down the stretch to ice the game for a final score of 73-62.

“It wasn’t our best game, but New Paltz deserves a load of credit for keeping it so close and really making us work,” Leone said.

“We played good as a team, but we had some rough stretches,” Burridge said. “In the end, we buckled down and played our brand of basketball, and it ended up winning out.”

Most of Oswego State’s defensive woes occurred while Burridge was in foul trouble early in the second half.

“Any time you lose a player like Chad for an extended period, it can really hurt your team,” Ward said. “He makes a huge difference on both ends of the floor, and really makes everyone else on the team better.”

Ward finished with a game-high 25 points and 16 rebounds.  Burridge added 15 points, and Gilkes had 10 to round out Oswego State’s balanced scoring effort. Junior forward Matt Devine had 22 points and five rebounds for the Hawks, but was boggled down by fouls for most of the game.

“Despite Devine’s high point total, Chad did a really great job of keeping him in check the whole game,” Ward said. “I played well myself, and the whole team was looking to be aggressive. We were all just ready to go and we did what we had to do.”

The Lakers will be hosting fourth-seeded The College at Brockport in the SUNYAC semifinals on Friday at 8 p.m.