The Oswego State men’s basketball team bowed out of the NCAA Tournament on March 6 in the first round, but the SUNYAC Champions will head into the offseason with a sense of accomplishment.
The Lakers had a strong campaign in which they were consistently on top or near the top of the SUNYAC before just missing out on a first round bye, finishing with the third seed. They defeated tough competition in the conference tournament and were deserving champions.
Head coach Jason Leone was named the SUNYAC Coach of the Year and led the Lakers to the SUNYAC crown for the second time in just his first four years with the program.
“It’s very satisfying,” Leone said. “This team really maxed out on what they were capable of. I thought mentally what they did to get to the end of the year they really did everything that we asked them to do.
“I had fun going to practice every day, it was just the group of guys genuinely cared for one another,” Leone said.
Brian Sortino was the Lakers’ leading scorer and named to the All-SUNYAC first team for the first time in his brief college career. The sophomore averaged 16.5 points per game on 44.2 percent shooting from the field. His scoring ability can be attributed to his good perimeter play with a solid mid-range shot as well as his fearlessness when driving and cutting to the basket to score while taking contact.
“It was a great season,” Sortino said. “I don’t think other coaches expected us to win it all this year.
Sortino was the recipient of the SUNYAC Tournament MVP award, which recognized him as the best player in the tournament. He recognizes the contributions of his teammates, however, and acknowledges that the championship was through hard work and dedication of the entire team.
“It’s basically just having my teammates trust me with the ball in the games and I’m just trying to do whatever I can to help us win,” Sortino said. “We came together as a group after the Cortland loss and said we don’t want to lose anymore, we knew we had to win those three games.”
The Lakers finished the regular season schedule with an overall 16-9 record and a 12-6 record in conference play. The SUNYAC remained a conference that has tough competition within itself. Combined with the fact that the Lakers are a young squad, there were few people that thought the Lakers would pose a legitimate threat to the rest of the conference before the season started. The Lakers would quell those doubts with a 7-1 start in conference play.
Aside from the scoring prowess of Sortino, another player who stepped up in a big way this season was junior guard Walter Sampson, who saw himself inserted into a starting role after not starting a single game his first two seasons in the program. Sampson started all 29 contests the Lakers participated in this season. His ability to dictate the offense and finish around the rim helped him be the second highest scorer on the team behind Sortino. He averaged 10.3 points a game on 48.7 percent shooting. He sees the potential for the squad next season.
“I’d say it’s a big stepping stone for our team,” Sampson said. “A lot of guys put in a lot of work this offseason just for these moments. It was a big step for the program and a big step for this team that is so young.”
Despite the Lakers hot start to the campaign, they hit a rough patch at the end of January and it continued into February, as they lost three of five games. They won the next two matches, but a loss at home to SUNY Plattsburgh drove them out of the top overall seed in the conference playoffs.
The Lakers would split the last two games to enter the playoffs with the third overall seed, and though their regular season finale against SUNY Cortland was a defeat, the game before on the road against SUNY Geneseo is what led the team to believe that they could accomplish what they set out to accomplish.
“I thought the best thing I could say about the guys this season is that we were undefeated in game after losses, we never had a losing streak,” Leone said. “That is a tribute to the players responding when adversity hit. We always responded well when things didn’t go our way.”
Rashawn Powell, the lone senior on the team this season, leaves the team having played harder than anyone. He finished the season as the team’s leading rebounder with 7.6 boards per game while also averaging nine points a game, the fourth highest per game total on the team.
“This season meant a lot to me,” Powell said. “We got a lot accomplished. We had a great group of guys who never took no for an answer and fought through injuries and the ups and downs.”
“We clicked at the right time, I guess,” Powell said. ‘The team just made decisions collectively that helped us win the SUNYAC. After losing to Cortland in what was our senior game, we didn’t want to take any more losses after that. We knew we had to win a certain number of games to win the SUNYAC and get to the NCAA Tournament.”
Though his numbers decreased from last year, his contributions to the team were significant. After finally getting the starting job last season, he made the most of his big-man role despite his relatively short height in comparison to other big men in the conference.
During the SUNYAC Tournament, all three of the Lakers’ opponents were teams that played them tough during the season. The SUNY Oneonta Red Dragons and Oswego State were involved in two tightly contested overtime affairs at each other’s home grounds. The Lakers were able to overcome a rough start at home in the Max Ziel Gymnasium in the playoff contest and held on to a slim lead in the end to win, 68-59.
The Lakers then traveled to SUNY Plattsburgh for the semifinals and final, at the gym of the rival Cardinals. They played their semifinal matchup against the SUNY Geneseo Knights.
The Lakers relied on a heavy scoring output from Sortino and Kyle Covley. Covley had been struggling mightily down the stretch. But he came up big when it counted, as he finished with 18 points to help the Lakers to a 72-61 win.
The SUNYAC Championship game saw the Lakers take on the SUNY Plattsburgh Cardinals. The Lakers started on a 17-2 run to open the game and never looked back. They trailed as they held on to secure themselves an NCAA Tournament bid.
“A strength of ours this year was that we had a really good leadership group,” Leone said. “I just thought they had great leadership throughout the year.”
The Lakers faced the Calvin College Knights in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and were eliminated after they fell behind early and only managed to take a slim lead late in the game before succumbing to the Knights offense, 78-69.
The Lakers will head into the offseason with only one member, Powell, graduating. That means next season the current players will be another year older and will look to make another run at the conference championship, and opponents will be on the look-out for them.