Cougars Fall Short of NCAA Bid

Josh Horton, Reporter

The men’s basketball team nearly made its second trip to the NCAA Division III Tournament, but a late run from top-seeded DeSales University left the Cougars with a second place finish in the Freedom Conference for the 2014 season.

The Cougars finished the season with an overall record of 16-11, including an impressive 10-2 record in the Anderson Sports and Health Center.

The season started with yet an- other Laurel Line Championship following impressive wins over Marywood University and Baptist Bible College. However, the Cougars went 3-8 over their next 11 games and headed into the heart of the Freedom Conference schedule with an overall record of 5-8.

The team heated up just in time for students to return from Christmas break, going on a six-game winning streak, which included wins over Eastern University, FDU-Florham, DeSales, Delaware Valley College, Lebanon Valley College and King’s College. The Cougars then controlled their own destiny into the Freedom Conference Championship Tour- nament by securing the second seed.

The Cougars defeated Manhattanville in the tournament opener, but eventually lost a 73-64 overtime heartbreaker to top- seeded DeSales. The Bulldogs have reached the title game in each of their last playoff appearances and have won two Freedom Conference Championships.

The good news for the Cougars is they return all but one of their players next season. The bad news is the one player not returning is Matt Greene.

The guard amassed the 1,000-point mark and finished his final season averaging 12.1 points per-game, while making 84 three-pointers. He was named second-team All-Freedom and had a team-high 88 assists and shot a team-best 87.5% from the free throw line.

“It’s always tough to lose a veteran,” head basketball coach Trevor Woodruff said. “Matty was great for us on the floor, but what he brought to this team in terms of culture will live on long after he leaves. He brought a tremendous focus and work ethic every single day.”

The Cougars return every other player who received significant time this season. Perhaps the most improved player is Joe Busacca. Woodruff noted the junior guard was key to the success the Cougars enjoyed this year. Busacca finished the year averaging 13.1 points per-game and played a team high 954 minutes, starting all 27 games.

“Joe is very, very good at the process and he loves it,” Woodruff said. “He knows what do in the off-season to get better and he still has some room to improve over the off-season.”

Woodruff is hoping to see Busacca improve as a defender and said if he does that, the sky is the limit for him.

“If Joe played an entire 40 minutes like he played the last 10 minutes of the Freedom Conference Championship game, he would be the best defender in our league,” Woodruff said. “He has definitely matured over the years, and we are looking for him to be more consistent. If he does that, we’re talking first-team All Conference or Player of the Year.”

The Cougars also return Steve Ware, and Woodruff feels he has to be the favorite for Freedom Conference Player of the Year next season. Ware finished the season averaging a team-high 14.3 points per-game, 31 blocks and 197 rebounds.

“Steve’s decision making really improved this season, and he also improved from the foul line, which is huge for him,” Woodruff said. “I definitely think he is going in the right direction and he may be only 6’4, but he plays like he’s 6’7, and he has to be the favorite for Player of the Year out of the guys returning next season.”

The Cougars also return Griffin Sponaugle next season, and Woodruff feels once he decided to put him in the starting lineup, he changed the whole season. Sponaugle averaged 30 minutes per game and did a little bit of everything for the Cougars.

“We felt like we needed some more offense on the floor and Griffin gave us that opportunity as a guy who can knock down shots. He was a big part of our turnaround” Woodruff said. “Once we switched to zone, that really helped him as a defender and he was very solid for us this season.”

Cael Evans also gave the Cougars a spark off the bench, averaging 8.8 points per-game and 4.7 re- bounds per-game. Erik Kerns gave the Cougars a boost, and despite starting the season playing limited minutes, he turned out to be a very good player in the post.

“Honestly, we were looking at Eric to give us eight to ten minutes a game before the season, and he had a huge year for us,” Woodruff said. “We expect him to get better and better over the offseason.”

James Hawk will play his first minutes for the Cougars next season after missing out this year with a leg injury. Hawk originally played for the Naval Academy, but he transferred following his fresh- man season. Woodruff will look to some of this year’s freshman to compete for minutes next season.

“We had an incredibly talented group of freshman this season and I expect improvement even more over the off-season,” Woodruff said. “I think this off-season will be the biggest leap of improvement we will see from them.”

One uncertainty heading into 2014 – 2015 is the point guard position. With Greene graduating, Woodruff will likely either turn to Busacca or an incoming freshman. “We run the majority of our offense through Joe, and it doesn’t matter whether he plays the point or not, we will still run it through him,” Woodruff said. “Whether Joe runs the point or not will depend on how the rest of our recruiting goes.”

As for Ware, he’s expecting a championship.

“I think with the guys we have coming back and what we were able to do this year, our goal is going to be simple,” Ware said. “We want to win the conference.”

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