Matt Knowles is back from his injury last season and the Ursinus Bears are back in contention for the Centennial Conference title.
The score was 91-38, and it might not have even been that close. Ursinus, starting three freshmen and a sophomore against Franklin and Marshall, was run out of the gym in Lancaster, Pa., to fall to 6-9 in the Centennial Conference. No Bear scored more than eight points.
That was less than two years ago.
- Women's Top 25: Mary Washington moves into Top 10 ahead of CNU clash
- Men's Top 25: Rough week sends Swarthmore out of rankings
The Bears were in Lancaster again this past December, and nobody expected much of them – until their 102-86 domination of the Diplomats. Ursinus led by as many as 23, never trailed, outrebounded F&M by a dozen boards, and, most telling, racked up 19 assists in a fine display of team basketball.
Less than a week later, the Bears gave Swarthmore, the preseason favorite in the Centennial, all they could handle, leading the Garnet with less than two minutes to go before succumbing. The Bears went 3-0 last week, including a win Thursday at Dickinson and two days later against Gettysburg, to tie the Garnet and Red Devils for first place in the conference entering this week.
It’s a fitting reward for a program that has been patient, working to build a winner based not on finding the best individual talent, but on assembling a group of athletes committed to working together, believing that someday their commitment would pay off.
“Coach talks about all those days, all those practices, all that hard work finally adding up for us,” said junior forward Joe LoStracco, a freshman starter in that lopsided loss two years ago. “My freshman year we started 0-7, and we didn’t know how to handle that. It felt at times like we’d never get a win. But we knew we were going to be good, so we worked to get to that position to make sure we were going to be a good team.”
“We have a group of kids who really work very hard to put the team first,” said head coach Kevin Small. “This rebuilding is three years in, and I think this group stands out as uniquely unselfish. They love competing in and playing a team sport. Frankly, those kids are harder to find now that it was 26 years ago.”
Small uses that time frame to refer to his first year of coaching, 1991, when his belief in team basketball was solidified. He was then only two degrees of separation from one of the coaches most identified with it: Greg Popovich, architect of the San Antonio Spurs’ five NBA championships. Small worked under Lee Wimberly as an assistant at Swarthmore. Wimberly, just a few years earlier, worked for Popovich at Pomona-Pitzer in California. Wimberly would later spend a year with the Spurs before coming back to Swarthmore.
“Lee brought some Spurs stuff back to Swarthmore, which I then stole,” Small joked. “He really fell in love with the concept of how ball movement can create analytics. Great players, for sure, but the ball moves. We didn’t win a ton, but he’s probably the best coach I’ve ever met.”
Small’s brand of ball relies on a point guard, and the Bears have a very good one in Matt Knowles, but it also must include big men who can pass, and do it intelligently.
“The forwards; it’s fun to play that style where the ball moves through them,” Small said. “We want that interior big man to be a second point guard.”
Small can point to several Bears who fit the description, including wide-bodied LoStracco, 6-7 Parisian Remi Janicot and Zach Quattro, a transfer from LeMoyne.
“(LoStracco) has a really high basketball IQ,” Small said. “He’s one of the guys I’m alluding to who is constantly mentoring our young bigs.
“We recruited Zach, and we feel really fortunate to have him now. He’s another high-IQ passer, as is Remi. We’ve returned to recruiting forwards who are good at passing. The basketball metrics are returning to recruiting based on working hard, on team basketball.
Big-man passing was on display in the F&M game, and the beneficiary was Eric Williams, who scored a career-high 30 points, making six of his nine three-point attempts.
Knowles was on his way to an all-conference-type season last year, averaging 16.2 points per game, when he tore his ACL in a game at Dickinson. Exactly one year later to the day, he was back in Carlisle, scoring 27 points to boost his average for this season to 16.2. Still, he credits the Bears’ success to their unselfishness, and to last year’s captain, Mark Wonderling, for preaching that.
“He was the ultimate team guy, and he passed that down to guys like me, like (senior forward) Patrick Mekongo,” Knowles said. “The culture of our team that Coach has built over the last three years is that nobody really cares who gets the credit, who gets the shots. We just want the team to do well. It makes it a lot of fun to play together.”
LoStracco is a prime example of the team’s unselfishness. He started every game last year for Ursinus and averaged 26.9 minutes. Now he comes off the bench behind Quattro and plays 15.5 minutes. Mekongo’s minutes have all but evaporated, from 19.2 as a junior to 4.7 this season.
“And he’s the first guy off the bench, cheering for his teammates,” Small said. “They breathe ‘team,’ in ways that few teams do.”
The Bears have work to do. That loss to Swarthmore, close as it was, started a four-game losing streak. The Centennial nears the halfway point of the conference schedule a muddled mess, with eight of the 10 teams clearly in the hunt for a playoff spot. Knowles said he thinks the Bears have a chance to be one of them.
“We think we’re good enough,” Knowles said. “If we can keep grinding, keep getting better, we can make the conference tournament. We can win a championship. But there’s a lot of work to do to get there.”
McGrath's coming-out party headlines week's best performances
J.C. McGrath began last week as a seldom-used afterthought on the Franklin and Marshall bench. He ended it as the linchpin of a 3-0 run and the Centennial’s player of the week.
McGrath had scored 25 points in 19 career games as of last Monday, but he scored 23 in wins over Muhlenberg and Washington during the week, then poured in 30 to lead the Diplomats to an upset win at first-place Swarthmore. McGrath, freshman Ignas Slyka and senior Jared Wright got their first three starts of the season in an F&M lineup revamped due to the injury to freshman standout Julius Stoma and some uneven play.
Swarthmore, meanwhile, with losses to Johns Hopkins and F&M, has gone from undefeated conference leader to right back into the pack in a league that features at most two teams with no realistic shot at a playoff berth. The Garnet found itself tied for first on Monday with Ursinus and Dickinson, with JHU one game back.
On the women’s side, Sierra Berkel’s 63.6-percent shooting during the week is a veritable slump for a player with a scalding season percentage of 70.6, but it was enough to help her Haverford team go 3-0 to tie for first place. Her average of 17 points and 10.3 rebounds warranted the league’s player-of-the-week award.
Alysha Lofton’s shooting was even better. The Albright junior scored 31 points on 11-for-15 shooting to lead the Lions to an 85-82 win over Messiah. The loss was the No. 22 Falcons’ first of the season and allowed Albright to move into first place at 7-0 in the league. Lofton also recorded a double-double with 17 points and 15 rebounds in Albright’s win over Lycoming, helping her become the Commonwealth’s player of the week.
Catholic’s Jay Howard scored 44 points in Catholic’s wins over Moravian and Elizabethtown, helping the Cardinals stay perfect in Landmark play and earning him the league’s weekly honor. The Cardinals, at 4-0, are a game ahead of Susquehanna and Scranton. They’ll visit Scranton Saturday at 4 p.m.
The same two schools will meet on the same floor in women’s basketball at 2 p.m. Catholic and Scranton enter the week tied for first at 4-0. Scranton will have the tougher opponent Wednesday. The Royals will have to deal with Moravian, which Catholic knocked off Saturday, while the Cardinals take on last-place Goucher. Scranton’s Bridgette Mann is the Landmark’s player of the week, thanks to her career-high 25 points Wednesday against Susquehanna.
The Capital Athletic Conference also features a battle of unbeatens this week, as 8-0 Mary Washington visits 8-0 Christopher Newport. The No. 11 Eagles feature CAC player of the week Brianne Comden, the third UMW player to win the award this year (Kendall Parker has won it twice). CNU is ranked No. 6 entering the week. The league’s last men’s unbeaten, Salisbury, fell to York (Pa.) last week. Blayde Reich led the Spartans with 18 points in the upset to win player-of-the-week honors.
Gbolohan Alliyu tied a conference record with 12 blocked shots last Wednesday in Penn State-Harrisburg’s win over Wesley.
Swarthmore will travel to Dickinson Saturday for a 4 p.m. game between teams entering this week tied for first (along with Ursinus). Swarthmore figures to enter the game off a win at home Wednesday against Haverford. Dickinson, which visits F&M, has a tougher test during the week.