The women’s basketball team must be enjoying the new year, as it appears the Lakers will make the PSAC tournament for the first time in three years.
After a 3-8 start to the season, including four losses by double digits and a 22-point defeat at the hands of Edinboro—now 2.5 games ahead in the PSAC West—Coach Deanna Richard’s squad have posted a 9-5 record since Dec. 12. This includes going 7-4 in 2016, and now sit a game over .500 in PSAC competition at 10-9. This is the first time they have been over .500 in conference play since 2011-12.
The Lakers are fifth in the West and 12-13 overall, a game ahead of a rebuilding Seton Hill squad that travels to the Mercyhurst on Wednesday, Feb. 17, with only three conference games left for both sides.
Junior and leading scorer Natalie Piaggesi attributes their success to the combined play overall.
“When we work really well as a team, and we can work the ball, that’s really big for us. Something that I think is really good about this year is how we don’t just have one sole scorer. We pick up after each other,” Piaggesi said.
Piaggesi is one of two Lakers averaging a team-high 14 points per game, along with fellow Bethel Park native and Seton-La Salle graduate Angela Heintz.
The Lakers have struggled on both sides of the ball, especially with a -91 scoring differential in the fourth quarter alone compared to a +73 margin in the first three quarters.
They also lost both overtime games they have played this year, being outscored 26-21 by Bloomsburg on Dec. 4 and Clarion on the 19. They have only held six opponents to below 60 points this season while scoring below 50 themselves on three occasions.
Overall offense has increased steadily though, with the team averaging 67.6 points per game in their last 14, including outbursts of 83 on Wednesday, Jan. 27, against Slippery Rock (11-14, 7-12) and 88 against West Virginia Wesleyan.
However, opponents have been held to a 33.4 percent clip beyond the arc and 40.1 percent overall, but the Lakers have only converted 31.5 percent of their 3-point attempts.
“I think we get caught up in the moment in the fourth quarter,” commented senior and Villa Maria product Adrienne Kloecker. “The first three quarters, we plan to attack and then [in] the fourth, we stopped doing that. That’s always been a problem with this team. But I think overall, we’ve done a better job than in past years.”
By comparison, in that impressive 75-55 win over second-place Indiana (18-6, 15-5) on Wednesday, Feb. 3, the Lakers converted a season-high 30 shots at a 53.6 percent clip from the floor while holding the Crimson Hawks to just 38.5 percent on 20-52 shooting.
It was the fourth time this season the Lakers converted at least half their shots and the 13th time in 24 games an opponent has been held under 40 percent from the floor.
Against Pitt-Johnstown (7-18, 4-15) Saturday, Feb. 13, in the National Girls and Women in Sports event, the Mountain Cats were held to just five points in the second quarter but opened the fourth on an 18-8 run in its first 6:14 to cut the Laker lead, which had once stood at 21, to just five.
But the Lakers responded by holding the Mountain Cats to just eight points the rest of the way and held on for the crucial 65-60 win.
“When we are all on the same page with our defense and we’re really communicating then I think that’s what’s really working, it’s when our defense is on point. Each game is a learning experience, and especially with those games it’s hard to lose by just a few points,” Piaggesi said.
Kloecker described a dynamic very similar to the men’s team, the notion that anyone can go off at any time and that several players have been outstanding at different times.
“But whenever someone’s down, not having the best game, other people bring it back up,” Kloecker said.
It leads to four Lakers shooting better than 37 percent from the field and, literally, an overall +16 rebounding margin and a +31 assist surplus.
The Lakers wrap up the regular season looking to clinch their first postseason bid since 2011-12 with three crucial contests, each occurring directly before a corresponding men’s game.
A date with Seton Hill is slated for Wednesday, Feb.. 17, at 5:30 p.m., then West-leading California (18-5, 15-4) arrives for Senior Day on Saturday, Feb. 20, slated as a 1 p.m. tipoff at Mercyhurst Athletic Center.
The Vulcans are tied with West Chester—the current top seed in the East—for the best record in the PSAC. On Saturday, Jan. 23, the Vulcans pulled out a 76-74 victory as Seairra Barrett hit the game-winning jumper with five seconds on the clock, and Piaggesi—who recorded 25 on the night—was blocked on a layup.
The Lakers then head to the vaunted Hammermill Center for a 5:30 meeting with cross-town rival Gannon (16-7, 14-5) next Wednesday, Feb. 24.
Last season, more than 1,600 people cheered the Golden Knights to a 59-49 victory and held the Lakers to just 38.2 percent from the floor and 7-24 from downtown while rattling off 12 straight points as part of a 22-9 run to open the second half.
The Lakers lead Seton Hill by just one game in the West. There are six playoff spots in the West so the Lakers can clinch after their game against Seton Hill since Clarion only has two conference games left. Clarion would be eliminated with a loss, and the Lakers need to win at least one of their final three games. A Clarion loss puts the standings at Mercyhurst 11-9, Seton Hill 9-11 and Clarion 8-13, allowing the Lakers to clinch.