Head Coach Tim Gilbride thinks that men’s basketball has a solid chance of winning its first-ever NESCAC title this weekend at Trinity, but said that doing so will require the Polar Bears to continue playing their best basketball of the year.

“I think we have a real good shot,” said Gilbride. “Any of the four teams there for sure can win it. We have as good a chance as anyone.”

After its come-from-behind, 87-74 victory over Williams in last Saturday’s quarterfinal in Morrell Gymnasium, the team will take on Amherst in tomorrow’s semifinal. Amherst defeated Bowdoin 81-66 in late January, but the Polar Bears think they have become a different team—and in many ways a better team—since that loss.

When the Polar Bears last met Amherst, they had just lost senior captain Keegan Pieri to a season-ending injury and were adjusting to a new playing style. Captain Bryan Hurley ’15 said that the team has settled into that new style since that loss to Amherst.

“That was early on when we were getting used to not having [Pieri], and getting used to playing with a smaller team with a more up-tempo pace on offense, and getting used to defending with a smaller team,” said Hurley. “It’s starting to come along now, and we’re starting to play well together as a team.”

The team’s recent record supports Hurley’s claim. Since the Amherst loss, the Polar Bears have gone 5-1, with big wins over Middlebury and Bates. A large—and lanky—reason for that recent success is Lucas Hausman ’16, who became the first player in NESCAC men’s basketball history to win three straight Player of the Week awards after his 37-point performance against Williams last weekend.

Hurley said that Hausman will need to maintain his impressive form tomorrow against Amherst, and that the Polar Bears cannot allow the Lord Jeffs to get off to a strong start.
“If they get off early to a good shooting start then they’re going to be a tough team to beat, but if you clamp down defensively they can start to implode,” said Hurley.

The Polar Bears were able to recover from a slow start of their own against Williams last Saturday. In the first half, Williams guard Hayden Rooke-Ley hit six three-pointers—many of them uncontested—to give the Ephs a seven-point lead. That lead could have been larger were it not for senior John Swords, who went a perfect 8-8 from the field during the first half, scoring 16 of his eventual 23 points.

Gilbride made some tactical adjustments during halftime, and the Polar Bears started the second half on an 8-0 run, turning a seven-point deficit into a one-point lead in less than two and a half minutes. Hurley said the team knew it could score against Williams, but that it made some changes on the other side of the ball.

“Defensively we made sure we got out on shooters, especially [Rooke-Ley],” said Hurley. “We let him get open way too much in the first half.”

The adjustment worked. The Polar Bears held Rooke-Ley to only seven second-half points, and zero points in the game’s final 14 minutes, meaning that the Williams senior finished his career with 999 points. The Ephs, who shot 52 percent from the field in the first half, hit only 28 percent of their shots in the second.

The offense also found its groove, led by Hausman who scored 25 of his 37 points in the second half on 7-9 shooting and six trips to the free-throw line. Hausman said that because of the game’s high stakes, the Polar Bears were motivated to come out aggressive after halftime.

“There was a general realization in the locker room that this could be the end of the season and I don’t think anybody wanted that,” he said. “And I don’t think there was anyone in our locker room who thought that Williams was a better team than us.”

The players are focused on this weekend’s NESCAC tournament, but the NCAA D-III Tournament is not far from their minds. Gilbride said that they are a bubble team at the moment, and while a NESCAC title would earn the Polar Bears an automatic bid, Hurley said that a win in tomorrow’s semifinal would likely be enough to secure them a spot.

For now, however, the Polar Bears have their sights set on a NESCAC title, and although they lost to all three of the other semifinalists—Amherst, Trinity and Wesleyan—during the regular season, Hausman said he remains confident.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that we can hang with or beat any of them,” Hausman said.