Around the Region

Better late than never for SUNY Poly

Like Ray, Jackson is on her third college stop. The pair have found a home at SUNY Poly.
Kelley Marie Photography 

The SUNY Polytechnic Institute women's basketball team has had the same stretches of inconsistent shooting, occasional missed assignments, and general sloppiness that every college basketball team inevitably faces each season.

But considering the Wildcats' roster features nine players new to the program, including eight freshmen, it's easy to understand those growing pains.

Wins are a universal cure-all for the ups and downs of a season, and SUNY Poly has had plenty of those this year -- 23 wins in 25 attempts in the regular season, to be exact.

"As far as experience, we didn't have much as far as being together," head coach Jessica Skelton said. "Every day it's a different kid stepping up. That's kind of been the way it's been for us this year."

SUNY Poly finished atop the North Eastern Athletic Conference with a roster that includes only two players with more than two years of experience with the program. Last year's team finished with 23 wins and reached the NCAA tournament before losing to Montclair State in the first round. Despite the departure of several key contributors, expectations remained high, due in no small part to two of the the program's most recent additions -- senior guard Stevie Ray and junior forward Khristaijah Jackson.

Ray, a 5-foot-7, dynamic guard with elite scoring ability from Syracuse, N.Y., was recruited twice by Skelton -- once out of high school and again after graduating from a two-year junior college. After two years at Mohawk Valley Community College, Ray accepted a scholarship offer from Division II Clarion University in western Pennsylvania. It wasn't an ideal fit for Ray, who left after one semester. Ray reached out to Skelton about transferring to SUNY Poly in the middle of the 2015-16 season, and the third time proved to be the charm.

Jackson, a 5-foot-10, athletic forward from Levittown, Pa., took a similar path to the Wildcats prior to this season. After a brief stint at Three Rivers Community College in Poplar Bluff, Mo., Jackson completed her junior college eligibility at Herkimer County Community College, about 30 minutes away from SUNY Poly.

"I was at a D-I JUCO in Missouri, and I didn't like it, so then I went to Herkimer College," Jackson said. "And then I couldn't play there anymore, so then ...

"I found her," Skelton interjected. "And I wouldn't leave her alone."

Ray and Jackson have thrived on the court this season. Ray ranks second in the nation with a scoring average of 25.1 points per game, along with 5.6 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 2.5 steals per game. Jackson is averaging 18.8 points, 9.3 rebounds, 1.9 steals and 1.1 blocks per game. Together, the dynamic inside-outside duo has helped the Wildcats win nine straight to end the regular season, and 14 of their last 15 overall dating back to the start of January.

"They bring a lot of points," Skelton said with a laugh.

The two have also brought leadership on a team lacking players with significant college experience. The Wildcats' lone fourth-year senior is reserve guard Shannon Tooley, who plays sparingly. Guard Paige Gallo, the team's lone third-year junior, starts, along with Ray, Jackson, freshman Taylor Aybar, and senior Shelbey Kralik, who also transferred in with Ray mid-year last season. Senior forward Ryenn Smith, another transfer in her second season, also plays significant minutes.

With few established veteran leaders on the team, the onus has fallen on Ray and Jackson to lead vocally and by example. It's a challenge that Skelton said both have embraced.

"The most challenging part for me has been playing with eight freshmen," Ray said. "It takes a lot out of me when it comes to stepping up as a leader. That's been a struggle for me, but it's definitely benefitted me as a person. I've grown from it."

Ray and Jackson account for 56 percent of the Wildcats' total points on a per-game basis, but players like Kralik, a solid two-way player; Smith, a versatile defender; and Kiersten Leos, a promising freshman guard have all contributed. Perhaps the most pleasant surprise, however, has been Aybar, who has started all 25 games at point guard.

"She's mentally as strong as I've ever had as a freshman," Skelton said. "To be able to run the point for this team, at 23-2, is pretty impressive. I don't think people give her the credit she deserves."

Skelton knows what it's like to play guard for the Wildcats. She was a two-sport standout during her two years (2002-04) at the college -- then known as SUNY Institute of Technology -- in basketball and softball. Skelton is now in her 12th season as the basketball team's head coach, a period of time that has seen considerable growth and development of the SUNY Poly campus and athletics program, as well as the transition from the SUNYAC to the NEAC.

"From when I started here to where it is now is, it's completely different," Skelton said. "It's so much better, so much bigger."

Under Skelton's direction, the women's basketball team has helped build a winning tradition at the college. The Wildcats have had a winning record in each of their nine seasons in the NEAC, and earned the program's first-ever NCAA tournament berth last season.

With two more wins -- Saturday against St. Elizabeth in the NEAC tournament semifinals, and Sunday in the tournament championship game -- the Wildcats will book a second straight trip to the NCAA tournament.

"We're really just getting started, to be honest with you," Skelton said. "My favorite moment will be in the future, if we're successful here."

Conference tournament primer

The march toward March continues. The SUNYAC and NEAC conference tournaments are already underway, while the Liberty League and Empire 8 conference tournaments start on Wednesday and Friday, respectively. The UAA is the only conference in Division III without a conference tournament. Washington U. has already clinched the men's title, though Rochester appears in solid shape for an NCAA at-large bid. The UAA women's title will go to the winner of Saturday's game between Chicago and Washington U.

D3hoops.com has every conference in Division III covered. Follow the men's tournaments here, and the women's tournaments here. Below is a quick guide to the East region races.

SUNYAC

Men

Host: Oswego (after first-round games)

Schedule:

No. 3 Oneonta 89, No. 6 Geneseo 73 (Tuesday)

No. 5 Buffalo State 61, No. 4 Cortland 59 (Tuesday)

No. 3 Oneonta vs. No. 2 Brockport, 5:30 p.m., Friday

No. 5 Buffalo State at No. 1 Oswego, 7:30 p.m., Friday

Championship game: 4 p.m., Saturday

Women

Host: Geneseo (after first-round games)

Schedule:

No. 6 Brockport 70, No. 3 Oneonta 64 (Tuesday)

No. 4 Cortland 55, No. 5 Fredonia 51 (Tuesday)

No. 6 Brockport vs. No. 2 New Paltz, 5:30 p.m., Friday

No. 4 Cortland at No. 1 Geneseo, 7:30 p.m., Friday

Championship game: 4 p.m., Saturday

Empire 8

Men

Host: St. John Fisher

Schedule:

No. 4 Nazareth at No. 1 St. John Fisher, 6 p.m., Friday

No. 3 Utica vs. No. 2 Stevens, 8 p.m., Friday

Championship game: 4 p.m., Saturday

Women

Host: Stevens

Schedule:

No. 4 St. John Fisher at No. 1 Stevens, 6 p.m., Friday

No. 3 Hartwick vs. No. 2 Ithaca, 8 p.m., Friday

Championship game: 4 p.m., Saturday

Liberty League

Men

Host: None; higher seed hosts each game

Schedule:

No. 4 Hobart at No. 1 Skidmore, 8 p.m., Wednesday

No. 3 Union at No. 2 St. Lawrence, 7 p.m., Wednesday

Championship game: TBA

Women

Host: None; higher seed hosts each game

Schedule:

No. 4 Clarkson at No. 1 Skidmore, 6 p.m., Wednesday

No. 3 RIT at No. 2 William Smith, 7 p.m., Wednesday

Championship game: TBA

NEAC

Men

Host: Gallaudet (after first-round games)

Schedule:

No. 4 (North) Cazenovia 83, No. 1 (North) SUNY Poly 82 (Tuesday)

No. 2 (North) Morrisville State 76, No. 3 (North) Wells 73 (Tuesday)

No. 2 (South) Lancaster Bible 78, No. 3 (South) Bryn Athyn 69 (Tuesday)

No. 2 (North) Morrisville State at No. 1 (South) Gallaudet, 2 p.m., Saturday

No. 4 (North) Cazenovia vs. No. 2 (South) Lancaster Bible, 4 p.m., Saturday

Championship game: 1 p.m., Sunday

Women

Host: SUNY Poly (after first-round games)

Schedule:

No. 2 (North) Morrisville State 66, No. 3 (North) Keuka 49 (Tuesday)

No. 1 (South) Lancaster Bible 73, No. 4 (South) Penn State-Abington 70, 2OT (Tuesday)

No. 3 (South) St. Elizabeth 95, No. 2 (South) Bryn Athyn 89, OT (Tuesday)

No. 3 (South) St. Elizabeth at No. 1 (North) SUNY Poly, 2 p.m., Saturday

No. 2 (North) Morrisville State vs. No. 1 (South) Lancaster Bible, 4 p.m., Saturday

Championship game: 1 p.m., Sunday

Top 25 roundup: Geneseo moves up two spots

Geneseo, one of only five remaining undefeated women's teams in Division III, climbed two spots to No. 16 in this week's D3hoops.com Top 25 poll. The other four teams -- Amherst (No. 1), St. Thomas (No. 2), Thomas More (No. 4) and Ohio Northern (No. 5) are all ranked among the top five. Ithaca continued to receive votes in this week's poll.

In the men's poll, Rochester slipped four spots to No. 10. St. John Fisher and Brockport both received votes.

Contact me

Have a story idea? A fun stat? Just want to talk some hoops? I'm always happy to hear from a fellow D-III fan. I can be reached via email at andrew.lovell@d3sports.com, or on Twitter at @Andrew_Lovell.

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Columnist

Justin Goldberg

Andrew Lovell is a writer based in Connecticut and a former online news editor for ESPN.com, as well as a former sports staff writer/editor for the New Britain Herald (Conn.). He has written feature stories for ESPN.com, currently contributes fantasy football content to RotoBaller.com, and has been a regular contributor to D3sports.com sites since 2007. Andrew has also written for a number of daily newspapers in New York, including the Poughkeepsie Journal, Ithaca Journal and Auburn Citizen. He graduated from Ithaca College in 2008 with B.A. in Sport Media and a minor in writing.

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