February 9, 2013
Dragons ‘D’ steps up
During this stretch of success that has now produced 11 consecutive victories, scoring points has not been much of a problem for the SUNY Cortland men’s basketball team.
Or as senior guard Jeremy Smith noted of these deep and experienced Red Dragons: “Everybody scores and everybody wants to score.”
So when the nationally-ranked and first place Red Dragons put forth a defensive effort like the one that bottled up visiting Oswego on Friday night to accompany their point-producing prowess, they can appear downright unbeatable.
That was the case when Cortland crept closer to clinching a regular season title by disposing of the visiting Lakers with surprising 78-46 ease to make this Senior Night celebration a joyous occasion before one of the bigger Corey Gymnasium gatherings of this campaign.
Cortland nearly matched its 79.4 points per game scoring average with a typically balanced offense that featured four double figure scorers in senior guard Jesse Winter (16 points), senior Brian Manning (15), senior Harrison Hefele (11) and sophomore guard Lamard Herron (11). But it was some determined defensive work that enabled the Red Dragons to complete a season-sweep of the defending SUNY Athletic Conference champions.
“That’s the best defense we’ve played all year, and it came at the right time,” said Smith after streaking Cortland improved to 13-2 in conference play and 19-3 overall. “We just executed the game plan basically to perfection and this was the outcome. We just wanted to lock down their two prominent scorers (Hayden) Ward and (Chris) Gilkes, and that was our focus tonight.”
Senior forward Gilkes was in early foul trouble, and the Fowler High grad out of Syracuse scored just two points. Rugged 6-foot-6 senior Ward made just 3-of-10 shots while being held to seven points. Ward was scoreless until two minutes remained in the opening half, Cortland 30-18 leaders at the break before pulling away shortly after intermission.
No one in the Lakers’ starting five reached double figures, as fourth place Oswego dropped to 9-6 in the conference and 16-6 overall.
“OUR DEFENSE, I THINK, really set the tone for the game,” said Coach Tom Spanbauer of his Cortland squad that came into the game ranked 24th nationally by D3basketball.com pollsters. “Our guys not only played the defense with a lot of energy, they played the defense with a lot of execution. They really executed the game plan on how we were going to defend guys based on where the ball was going.”
Oswego shot just 34 percent for the game, including a wayward 2-for-18 touch beyond the 3-point arc, and turned the ball over 14 times. An active Hefele led the winner’s defense with three steals.
“Our defensive positioning was outstanding,” noted Spanbauer. “We had our backside help involved in really taking their postmen away at times. I would categorize this as our best defense of the year, which once again is hopefully the goal... playing your best later and later into February.”
“All year long we’ve just been focusing on our game plan,” said Manning, the crucial reserve out of Elmira Southside who hit 6-of-12 shots and got his hands on five rebounds.
“Coach Spanbauer hands out an unbelievable game plan every time, and if we stick to it this is what we do. We get up by double digits and we just keep it, if we stick to the game plan and everyone’s playing as a team,” added Manning.
Cortland is a complete team, that’s for sure. How many teams could survive having two top scorers not at their sharpest?
Smith, averaging 14.8 points per game, was only 1-for-5 shooting treys and finished with seven points. The lone points scored by 6-foot-6 junior forward Kevin McMahon, averaging 13.2 points per game, came on a second half three-point play.
Cortland still shot 52 percent as a team, including going a respectable 8-for-22 from 3-point territory.
“THAT IS WHAT it’s been all year. Our strength is our numbers,” said Manning. “And this year we have the addition of having Lamard Herron coming off the bench, and he’s a guy who can get you 10 to 20 points on any night. If they’re locking up one person, we have what, six other people who can do damage.”
Herron also had a team-high five assists in the victory.
The only time Cortland trailed was when guard Sean Michele completed a three-point play on a drive to the basket which put the Lakers up 8-7 with 12:24 left in the first half.
Manning answered with his own three-point play being fouled scoring on a pull-up jumper. After a 15-footer by Oswego’s Kyle Covley tied things at 10-10, Smith swished a 3-pointer from the corner and Manning connected on another jumper which led to one of three early timeouts used by Oswego coach Jason Leone. Moments later 6-foot-9 center Dan Sternkopf was blocking a Ward shot, Herron was scoring on a maneuver in the lane and the Cortland lead was 17-10. It grew to 27-14 soon after when Herron hit a 3-pointer from the left side, Hefele scored in the lane and point guard Winter — fresh from breaking the school career scoring record in this past Tuesday’s 28-point rout of Oneonta — stirred up the crowd with a 30-foot bomb swished with the shot clock expiring.
Hefele hit a trey 20 seconds from the end of the first half, and Cortland opened the second stanza going on a 11-2 run — started with a Winter drive and finished with Manning turnaround shot in the lane . The quickly the lead was 21 points and counting and Coach Leone started looking to his Oswego bench trying to find answers.
That second half Cortland surge really took the stress out of this Senior Night occasion, Winter, Smith, Hefele, Manning and Sternkopf taking pre-game bows with their parents.
“WE’VE BEEN PLAYING with each other for four years now, so we just have this edge that we’re just going to go out there and do what we’ve been doing all year long,” said Manning.
Now Cortland can clinch at lest a tie for first place towards the quest of earning the home court advantage for the playoffs by beating New Paltz at home on Tuesday. The Hawks were the last team to knock off the Red Dragons, opening up second semester play with a 77-70 victory back on Jan. 8 in New Paltz. Cortland hasn’t lost since.
And getting the home court advantage for the conference playoffs means a lot for Cortland, who after facing New Paltz closes out the regular season next weekend with games at Plattsburgh Friday and Potsdam Saturday.
“It’s really important. You could see tonight, the electricity that was in the air,” said Manning of playing in front of a vocal home crowd. “We all felt it when we were out there. There was just a lot of emotion going into it and it helps out. It puts a little more jump in your step. It was the most fun I’ve had in a basketball game.”
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