The Oswego State men’s basketball team overcame a rough first half and pushed ahead late to defeat the SUNY Oneonta Red Dragons, 68-59, to advance to the SUNYAC conference playoff semifinals.
After the Lakers struggled down the stretch of the regular season, which saw them drop from first to third in the conference standings, they looked to beat the Red Dragons for the third time this campaign. The Lakers won the first two games against the Red Dragons in two overtime affairs, including a double victory at home on January 6. The two teams have played evenly throughout the year and that did not change on Tuesday.
“I think at this time of year, everybody is fatigued mentally and physically,” Coach Jason Leone said. “And I thought it just took us a little while to get going.”
Mark Candelario, whose playing time has been inconsistent this season, made his presence felt in the matchup. Candelario has played his best games against the Red Dragons this season and Tuesday was no exception. He finished the game with 13 points and seven rebounds. His highest scoring game of the season was also against the Red Dragons, scoring 19 points in the first game between the two teams this season.
“We played the whole season for this moment so we wanted to play our hardest,” Candelario said. “We were playing with energy but we weren’t executing on defense so we had to pick the defense, which was the most important thing.”
The Lakers began the second half sluggishly, missing chances at the rim that could have brought the game closer. The offense was moving rather slow. The Lakers were hanging around, but could not close the gap between themselves and the Red Dragons. The zone defense that the Dragons were implementing was effective in stifling the Lakers offense for a majority of the game.
Alex Rawa brought the Lakers within four points with a three pointer, 38-34. The Lakers finally cut the Red Dragon lead to one point of a Kyle Covley basket, making it 44-43 and forcing the Red Dragons to take a timeout. Sortino hit a pair of free throws to put the Lakers up by one point, 45-44 with 10:06 left in the game. The Lakers however found no definite answer for the Red Dragon offense, which consistently was able to find a balance of outside shots and inside presence through slashing.
The Lakers lead however, 58-55, with 4:28 remaining in the game. A big reason for the lead was the resurgence of Sortino in the second half, having scored 11 points while having 4:05 remaining.
With less than two minutes remaining in the contest, the Lakers held a slim one point lead at 60-59. Pond hit a driving layup to push the tight lead to three points, 62-59. He also had a block on the other end of the floor on the Red Dragon’s possession. He finished the game with 15 points on 5-for-7 shooting as well as six rebounds. The Lakers attempted to hold on to their lead in the last minute.
One of the reasons for the Lakers victory was their near perfection from the free throw line. The Lakers made all but one of their free throws against the Red Dragons, shooting 20-for-21 from the charity stripe.
“We just wanted to go out there and playing with heart,” said Walter Sampson. “I thought we played well for the most part and finished out pretty strong.”
The Lakers fell behind the Red Dragons early, 10-4. But Pond was able to bring the Lakers closer with two baskets, including a three pointer. The two teams played evenly to start. A Candelario basket gave the Lakers the lead at 13-12. Caruso found Candelario underneath to push it to 15-12.
Sortino, the Lakers leading scorer, struggled to start the game. He finished the first half with two points on 1-for-7 shooting from the field. He didn’t score a single point throughout the first ten minutes, going 0-for-4 from the field. The Lakers as a whole aslso struggled breaking down the Red Dragon’s defense in the first half, being forced into difficult shots with the shot clock winding down.
“After the first half our coaches told us that we needed to stay locked in,” said Alex Rawa.
The Lakers used a man-to-man defense, which kept the Red Dragons at bay while trying to by the offense time to settle into the game. The contest remained close throughout the first half. However, every time the Lakers got closer and threatened to tie or lead, the Red Dragons would hit a three pointer to bring the Lakers deficit back up. The Lakers trailed 32-23 with under two minutes left to go until the half. The Lakers closed the gap right before the half, when a good inside pass from Sortino found Candalerio underneath the hoop for a basket plus the foul. Candalerio hit the free throw to cut the Laker deficit to 32-26.
The Lakers shot 10-for-29 from the field in the first half, a 34.5 percent clip, including only one three pointer. The Red Dragons meanwhile were dangerous from deep, shooting 50 percent from beyond the arc at 4-for-8. Overall they shot 12-for-30 from the field.
Pond and Candelario were the Lakers two high scorers in the first 20 minutes. Pond scored nine points while Candelerio put in seven of his own.
“The first game in playoff basketball is always the toughest because there is just a sense of uncertainty there,” Leone said, “I think getting that first one under your belt, now when you go out the next time, you think to yourself ‘okay we’re here, we got one under our belt, we can just go play.’”
The Lakers will travel to top seeded SUNY Plattsburgh for the semifinals. The Lakers will face the SUNY Geneseo Knights, who they split their two regular season contests against with each team winning their game on the road. In the other semifinal matchup, the College at Brockport Golden Eagles will take on the SUNY Plattsburgh Cardinals. The games will be held on Friday at 5:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m, respectively