ASHLAND, Va. — Almost a year ago to the day, the Oswego State men’s basketball team was in the same type of situation.
On March 11, 2022, the Lakers traveled to then-No. 2 Marietta College in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Division III tournament, ultimately falling 89-81 despite holding onto an eight-point lead at the media timeout with 12 minutes to go.
Following some “bad basketball” with uncharacteristic turnovers, the Marietta squad — and crowd — took advantage, Oswego State head coach Jason Leone said.
Now, on Friday — March 10, 2023 — Oswego State took on No. 1 Randolph-Macon College — the defending national champions with a 64-game home-court win streak. This time, using their experience against Marietta last season, the Lakers topped the Yellowjackets, 74-63.
“It’s one thing to win, but then you’ve got to finish the game at the end,” Leone said. “That’s really the hardest thing to do, especially in front of an incredible crowd like they had tonight.”
“I think Marietta prepared us a lot for a moment like this, the same type of atmosphere,” sophomore Ahkee Anderson said. “We just tried to not make the same mistakes we did last year and finish the game.”
Oswego State (28-2), with the win, advances to its first Elite 8 in program history, and will technically be the “home team” against University of Wisconsin-Whitewater on Saturday, at Randolph-Macon, which was the host school for the weekend.
Whitewater (24-7) topped John Hopkins University in a tight 83-82 overtime victory before the Lakers and Yellowjackets took to the court.
After reaching the Sweet 16 four times in the last seven years, Leone said “this is a good step in the right direction” as the Lakers head to the furthest they’ve ever been in the national tournament.
“This was a tree we’ve been trying to chop down for quite some time. … . The challenge is moving forward to tomorrow. One of the hardest things in sports is complacency,” Leone said. “It’s a quick turnaround tomorrow, and I think we’ve got a really good basketball team. We’ve got to turn around and shake off this emotion and be ready to play a game tomorrow.”
The Lakers got off to a quick start, and never looked back. While Anderson opened the contest’s scoring with a jump shot, Randolph-Macon’s Josh Talbert responded with a 3-pointer seconds later.
Once Oswego State gained the lead following a pair of free throws with 17:37 left in the first half, the Lakers never relinquished the advantage.
Oswego State’s speed propelled it to an early 20-9 lead heading into the media timeout with 12 minutes to go until halftime.
“My college coach always said, ‘Basketball’s a game where you have to dictate the terms of the game in the first five minutes,’” Leone said. “That was one of our gameplans going in, trying to get up and press. We’re not really a pressing team, but we wanted to say to our guys, ‘We’re going to be really aggressive and go after these guys, and if that’s not good enough, they’re going to have to beat us. But we’re not going to play back on our heels and lose. Somebody’s got to beat us.’”
The Lakers went on a few small runs, and ultimately scored the final two points of the half with two free throws from Devin Green with 1:04 left, giving Oswego State a 38-26 advantage going into halftime.
Randolph-Macon made an early run in the second half after the teams initially traded baskets. A nine-point run cut the Lakers’ lead to just three points, but Jeremiah Sparks immediately responded with a layup with 14:53 left.
The Yellowjackets trailed 59-55.
Oswego State eventually went on another run of its own before Randolph-Macon scored 12 unanswered points in just under three minutes. Leone noted the crowd “really got into it,” but each time they did, a Laker “made a play every single time.”
Within the last minute of the contest, and several timeouts called — either by teams or media timeouts — Leone mentioned that it wasn’t anything he said in the team huddles, but rather how the players composed themselves, drawing back on the Marietta experience.
“During the timeouts, our guys really encouraged each other and got themselves back focused. I may have drawn something up, or in my own way given them some encouragement or maybe some tongue-lashing, but they owned this moment,” Leone said. “And the players deserve the credit for that. Any coach will tell you, that has a good basketball team, the player-led teams are always the more gifted teams.”
With the game out of reach, Randolph-Macon started fouling Oswego State players to force stoppages in play. Sparks sank nine free throws in the last 1:16 to ice the game.
“Jeremiah made some really big free throws down at the end,” Leone said.
Sparks led Oswego State in the victory with 24 points, followed by Anderson’s 22 points. Green tacked on 13 points.
Jamal Achille recorded nine points. Cartier Bowman and Sean Edwards added three points apiece to round out Oswego State’s scoring.
Achille (8) and Green (7) also combined for 15 of the Lakers’ 34 rebounds in the game. Leone chalked up a lot of the Lakers’ success on Friday to their changing defenses, trying to keep Randolph-Macon “off balance.”
“The key of the zone was that we rebounded out of it pretty well,” Leone said. “We wanted to mix our defenses. It was more of that than one particular defense. We had to make some adjustments with the way we play our zone. … It helped us stay out of foul trouble.”
The weekend’s not over, and Leone said — outside of the challenge that Whitewater brings to the table — the other challenge will be keeping everyone “balanced emotionally” after the Sweet 16 victory.
“They’re going to get a lot of pats on the back — and if their phone’s like my phone, I got 250 text messages — so keeping everyone balanced emotionally will probably be the biggest challenge of the game tomorrow, not to take anything away from Whitewater,” Leone said. “Part of the reason we’re here is that we do have a very focused and determined group. I believe in these guys, and that’s what I told them all week. I believed, and they did it.”
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