Long road to the Sweet 16

More news about: Oswego State
Oswego State came out of Marietta with a ticket to continue in the NCAA Tournament. And a banner.
Oswego State athletics photo 

By Rob Knox

Brian Sortino had a lights-out night vs. Delaware Valley in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.
Oswego State athletics photo 

While, last weekend’s happy 483-mile journey from Marietta, Ohio to Oswego, N.Y., was a long eight-hour bus trip, the Oswego State Lakers traveled much further during their memorable season that still has at least one more chapter in it.

The story of the Oswego State men’s basketball team isn’t that it survived and won a pair of thrilling games last weekend against Delaware Valley and Gwynedd Mercy to advance to its first Sweet 16 in program history where it will host a sectional featuring Wooster, Keene State and Christopher Newport at Max Ziel Gym this weekend.

Keene State (20-10) and fourth-ranked Christopher Newport (28-1) will play at 5:30 p.m. Friday night followed by Wooster (23-7) and Oswego State (22-8) at 7:30 p.m. The winners meet in Saturday’s sectional final at 7 p.m. for a trip to the Final Four in Salem, Va.

This really isn’t a tale of first-class players coalescing into a finely tuned machine playing its best basketball at the perfect time.

Nope, it’s more like a novel in which Oswego State grew stronger and resilient from some midseason turbulence that threatened to derail their hoop dreams. While SUNYAC opponents were part of the issue, the biggest problem were the Lakers themselves. Ultimately, Oswego State was one of three SUNYAC teams selected to this season’s NCAA Tournament.

“Going into the (Christmas) break, we were nationally ranked and it got into our heads,” junior guard Brian Sortino said. “After losing the way we did coming out of break, it was a wake-up call. We knew we had get focused, play our game, work harder during practice and do whatever it took before and after practice to win. Once we all got that mentality, that’s when we started to click.”

It was easy for the Lakers to be excited and feel like the big men on campus after successfully navigating a challenging non-conference slate that included wins over Middlebury and Rochester. Once a national ranking appeared in front of Oswego State, well, life was great.

“I think we got ahead of ourselves and playing like we were too cool for school,” senior Alex Rawa said. “We all looked in the mirror. We said we were not going to worry about rankings or news articles. We were going to stay in between the four lines and play for one another.”

Of course, the SUNYAC can devour even the best of teams, so when the Lakers opened conference play with three consecutive setbacks, things definitely needed to change. Reeling slightly at 7-4, the Lakers responded and finished the season by winning 13 of their final 17 contests. Three of those setbacks were to Cortland and the other was a one-point loss to SUNY Geneseo.

“The guys didn’t handle themselves well as far as staying in shape,” fourth-year head coach Jason Leone said. “I think we rested on our laurels. Then we had the misfortune of some of our key players getting the flu. We had to regroup which they did, and now we’re playing our best.”

The Lakers’ “Creed”-like resilience came in handy in exciting victories last weekend. The mentally tough Lakers outlasted Delaware Valley, 88-78, in an overtime classic. Less than 24 hours later, Oswego State edged Gwynedd Mercy, 78-77, to advance to the second weekend of the NCAA Division III tournament.

Which men's host team is most likely to advance to the Final Four?
Oswego State

“To be able to host this weekend is obviously a good thing,” Leone said. “It’s a great honor and exciting, but we also understand that doesn’t entitle you to anything in terms of results on Friday. We’re going to have to play very well to win any game from here on out. Our facility is a great place to host and we are centrally located. We understand that we have an incredible challenge ahead of us.”

The Lakers have the personnel to meet any challenge starting with Sortino, an electric junior guard, who was named to the All-SUNYAC first team.

Offensively Sortino dominated this year, averaging a team-high 20.9 points per game. The Fairport, N.Y., native tallied 626 total points. Sortino found himself at the charity stripe quite a bit as well, making a conference-high 168 free throws. The junior also did his part in sharing the ball as he led the Lakers in assists per game with 3.4.

Even though he has lit up scoreboards this season, Sortino is also super humble as he immediately deflected any personal credit for his sterling season. He’s special, tough-minded and tenacious.

“It’s an honor to be mentioned as one of the best players in this because there are some tremendous players our conference,” Sortino said. “Really it’s my teammates that’s responsible for any attention that comes to me. They trust me with the ball in a late game situation.”

In the win over Delaware Valley, Sortino set a new career-high with 39 points in the contest, beating his previous mark of 38 that he notched in a win at Plattsburgh on Feb. 13. Four of his five career 30-point performances have been this season. Only a junior, Sortino makes his teammates better and they enjoy his presence.

“It’s great playing with Brian,” Rawa said. “For somebody who gets all the attention, he doesn’t let it get to him. He lets his play do the talking at all times.”

The Lakers are far from a one-man team. They have received contributions from everybody in their two tournament victories.

Senior Kyle Covley scored 20 points against the Aggies. Covley (6-for-10), Sortino (6-for-8) and Rawa (2-for-4) were a combined 14-for-22 (63.6 percent) from beyond the arc. As a team, the Lakers shot 55.6 percent (15-for-27) from distance. The next night against Gwynedd Mercy, Keith Tyson led the Lakers with 19-points, all in the first half. Covley and Rawa scored 12 points each.

Rawa grabbed a career best 15 rebounds against Delaware Valley and handed out a career best eight assists. Mark Candelario’s 12 rebounds helped Oswego State win the rebounding battle against Gwynedd Mercy, 36-25.

“The guys on this team are friends I love and we bond every day,” Rawa said. “That rough stretch knocked us down mentally, but it also got us more focused. I am glad we had each other to rely on to find a way to get back on track as a team.”

Leone knew he had a veteran team so he intentionally beefed up the schedule, which most likely helped Oswego State earn an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. Ten of the Lakers’ games have been decided by five points or less, including their last three contests.

“Part of the reason we’ve played so many close games was our challenging schedule and it’s hard to beat good teams,” Leone said. “We never plan to get an at-large bid because that involves us losing. This has been a really resilient group that hold themselves accountable. They are a very driven group. When the stakes become higher, it seems like they play their best basketball and that’s a good quality to have.”

Now, all the Lakers have to do is win two home games. Sounds simple. However, they understand that they will have to be at their best to conquer a Wooster program that’s in its 14th consecutive NCAA Tournament. The Fighting Scots are making their 10th trip to the Sweet 16 in the last 18 years.

The Lakers are where they confidently believed they would be even when the losses began accumulating a little faster than they would have liked. The players are excited and looking forward to the opportunity to continue making history. If they do, they’ll be able to share it with many of their closest friends in the familiar surroundings.

During a conversation with longtime volunteer assistant coach Bill Farden earlier this week, Rawa was made aware of the significance of this weekend for the Lakers.

“It was incredible to talking to him and just listening to him,’ Rawa said. “He said that this is one of greatest accomplishments that we’ve had here and it means a lot hearing that from him.”

One reason, Oswego is hosting aside from geography is three of the four host schools in this section of the bracket lost during the opening weekend: Catholic, Richard Stockton and Marietta. Had all four schools won, perhaps, Christopher Newport would be hosting this weekend.

Nevertheless, there’s no snow on the ground in Oswego and temperatures are expected to be in mild for central New York this weekend.

“It’s pretty awesome,” Sortino said of hosting. “Our whole campus is excited. I am sure the game is going to be sold out and definitely packed. Our team was very composed last weekend and we made a lot of little plays to win at the end. We’re such an older team that we want to step up and make the right play. I love my team and going to miss them. We enjoy practicing every single day and that’s what I am going to miss.”