Pair of Pioneers keep Paterson pounding away
How much winning can you fit under one roof?
In the Rec Center in Wayne, N.J., the answer is a whole heck of a lot. The Pioneers of William Paterson University are 42-2 this season -- that’s the men and the women, mind you. Together, they’ve formed a basketball powerhouse in northwestern New Jersey. At the moment, the rest of the New Jersey Athletic Conference is taking notice; a month from now, the rest of the nation will get a taste as well.
William Paterson athletics photo
The men are 21-1 this season, fresh off a victory over Ramapo on Wednesday night that gave them a 19-game winning streak and a 10-0 record in the NJAC. The women, meanwhile, are just as good -- they blew out the visiting Roadrunners on Wednesday and now sit at 21-1 as well. It’s a good year to be a Pioneer.
“I can't recall ever the men and the women having -- I've know we've both been to the NCAA Tournament together and all that, but ... the rankings and the record that we both have at this point,” women’s coach Erin Monahan said. “I think it's amazing. I think it's great. We've talked about this -- if we can get to NCAAs, we'll both be playing on the same day, if we get to that point. Each program supports each other really well, and I think it's great. I think they have the potential to go real far."
For the men’s team, it’s been a matter of turning things around after a few years of being an also-ran in the NJAC. The Pioneer men had seven losses in the conference in 2007 and missed the playoffs; they went 10-3 the following year but lost the title game to Richard Stockton. Last season, they went 8-5 in the league, again falling victim to Stockton in the playoffs. But the 1999 and 2001 Final Four team kept working to get better.
“Now our kids have been together for one more year,” coach Jose Rebimbas said. “We now have five seniors, four of whom start. We're just playing with a lot of experience this season. They've learned a lot over the last couple of years, and they've taken their lumps. We've still won our share of games over the last couple of years, but we just weren't able to get over the hump.”
Rebimbas has his sights set on bigger things now. He wants to build his squad into the “best defensive team in the country,” and the “most mentally tough team in the country,” he says. He wants to compete for a conference title and a trip to NCAAs. And he thinks that with the right amount of senior leadership -- with Tim Lucas, Bobby Dunn and Abdoulaye Ouedraogo guiding the ship -- he can get it done.
Rebimbas knows a thing or two about winning in the NJAC. He’s been around 15 years, won almost 300 games in D-III, and taken home four conference titles, including a three-peat from 2000 to ’02. But this year’s squad is different from the top teams he’s coached in the past. There are no superstars, no All-Americans leading the way this season -- it’s an ensemble cast.
Ouedraogo leads the way with 7.4 rebounds a game; Dunn and Lucas bring 3.3 assists each. Joseph Ellis, another senior, leads the way with 15.8 points a night. But no one player does it all.
"This year we're much more of a team," Rebimbas said. "We have a different guy every night that steps up to contribute. We go into the game as coaches without any idea of who's going to step up. They've become very unselfish, and whoever has the hot hand, that's who they end up passing to on any given night. It's been a very enjoyable experience to watch for me as a coach."
It’s even better when you’re sharing a gym with a women’s team that’s hot as wildfire. At the moment, Rebimbas enjoys that luxury, and he takes pride in it.
"It's a very healthy relationship that Coach Monahan and I have,” he said. “We've both been around for about the same amount of time, and we've piggybacked off of one another's successes. We've learned a lot from one another."
William Paterson athletics photo
Monahan’s journey to this point has been tough. She’s had to work this season without the de facto star of her team -- senior April Smith, who was a D3hoops.com All-Atlantic Region second-teamer last year. Smith went down just five games into the season with a hip injury, and the whole team had to regroup on the fly.
“Honestly, realistically, we could have fallen apart at that point,” Monahan said. “She was the strongest of our forwards, and it hurt to lose her. But the two leaders on my team, Elisa Brown and Julie Haledjian, got the whole team together and basically said that it's not going to be any one person that's going to replace her, it's going to be the whole team. And they did.”
They did anything but fall apart. They’ve won 16 of 17 since the injury, in fact, and Monahan gives a ton of the credit to her players.
“Julie and Elisa for years have been our leaders. They’re great role models. They don't want to lose -- every little silly drill they do in practice, they want to win. It could be just a little shooting drill they do, but those two seniors are together, and nobody pushes anybody as hard as they push each other. We're doing this because these guys don't want to lose.”
Haledjian, a scrappy 5-4 guard, has brought the leadership offensively; Brown, at the other guard, has led the way defensively. And BriAnna Lucas, a sophomore who won rookie of the year honors in the conference last season, has been the team’s leading scorer. Everyone’s picking up the slack.
The Pioneers’ one loss this season was to Kean, a perennial league contender that’s won titles in two of the last three seasons. And it wasn’t a pretty one -- they lost 102-66 on the road, giving up 58 points in the first half and coming out flat in the second.
Right now both Paterson and Kean are 21-1, and they’re both dominating the rest of the NJAC. It looks likely that the two teams will meet again for all the conference marbles. But no one’s talking about that just yet. Not with three games still to play.
“Honestly, we haven't talked about anything but our next game,” Monahan said. “I haven’t even told them that we can get a bye in the first round of the playoffs with a win on Saturday. I just don't feel like pressuring them at all this year. We've already got the motivational speeches ready for if we do play Kean again, and I'm hoping it's a better game then than it was last time -- but at this point, we're really not looking that far ahead.”
It’s easy to take it one game at a time. It’s not as easy to win 21 and counting. But somehow, two teams in Wayne, N.J., have managed to do just that. We’ll see how many more they’ve got left.
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