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SMC Basketball: Belles set to host home playoff game

Joe Meixell | Tuesday, February 21, 2006

No. 3-seed Saint Mary’s will host No. 6-seed Alma tonight at 7:30 in the first round of the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association (MIAA) playoffs, marking the Belles’ first-ever home playoff game since they began competing in the MIAA in 1997.

The Belles are excited to play at home, both because of the home-court advantage and their share in the program milestone. Under first-year head coach Steve Bender, Saint Mary’s has had it’s best season since it began conference play.

“[Our improvement thus far has been] huge,” junior captain and starting point guard Bridget Lipke said. “It’s a new thing for us. It’s really exciting because I think we’ve worked really hard for it and we’ve really had a lot of fun this year.

“… [And] we’ve been getting a lot of fans this year, getting a lot of support. It’s definitely a lot better playing at home rather than away.”

After struggling at home for the first half of the season – losing four of its first five home contests – Saint Mary’s has embraced the home court advantage. The Belles have played like a different team down the stretch, improving to 9-7 in the MIAA (and 11-14 overall) after beginning conference play with a 3-3 record.

“At the beginning of the season, we had trouble playing at home, but [now] being at home here gives us a lot of confidence,” freshman forward Erin Newsom said.

Saint Mary’s is coming off a two-game losing streak to end the season, dropping a contest to No. 4-seed Albion Wednesday and finishing Saturday with a loss to No. 1-seed Hope, which finished its season 23-1 with a perfect 16-0 MIAA record. Despite their recent troubles, the Belles are confident about playing Alma in the first round, having swept their season series 2-0.

Bender addressed the Belles’ mentality heading into their third match up with Alma.

“As far as mentally, I know our girls are really excited to play them, because we’ve played Alma, and we know we can play with them,” the coach said. “We know it’s hard to beat a team three times in a year, but we’ve just got to go out and do it.”

The Belles’ strength has been adjusting to teams the second time they meet, which has shown the strength of their coaching and their ability to read other teams’ playing styles.

Bender noted the change in the Belles’ home performances during the season, another reason for the team’s second-half surge.

“We’ve been getting really good crowds, they’ve been getting excited,” Bender said. “I just think it’s a tremendous advantage.”

Though the Belles have beaten Alma twice – once away and once at home – both games have been close. Saint Mary’s edged Alma, 74-68, Dec. 10 on the road and then won, 57-55, at home Jan. 10.

“I think by playing them twice and beating them twice, we know how to play them,” Newsom said. “Obviously we can be effective against them, but also at the same time, I think they’ve been working on beating us, but I think [playing at home] will give us an advantage, and we can come out on top.”

Several Saint Mary’s players thought that while playing at home would help them, it would not phase the Scots, who feature a balanced offensive attack and solid defense led by senior Darcie Philp and her sister, sophomore Erica Philp.

“I don’t think they’re going to be intimidated,” senior captain Bridget Boyce said. “I think they’re going to come ready to play, but we’re going to come out strong, and we’ll take it from there.”

Bender echoed his captain’s feelings that Alma would not fall easily, despite his team’s recent success against them.

“Alma’s not going to be intimidated at all,” Bender said. “Both games were really close. They’re going to come up with some bizarre plan … we are so evenly matched. Everything we do is about the same, and it’s going to be a really exciting game.”

The Belles will look for a strong offensive performance from Boyce – who last week scored her 1,000th career point and became Saint Mary’s all-time leader in 3-pointers made – and sophomore guard Alison Kessler. Kessler, who was named MIAA player of the week earlier this season, leads the team with 14.3 points per game.

“It’s going to be a tough game,” Lipke said. “It all comes down to the playoffs, anything can happen. We’re ready to play.”

Despite the firepower they possess, the Belles all agree on what they will need to do to come away with the victory is play defense.

“We’ve been scouting them pretty good and we know what we have to do,” Lipke said. “So hopefully we can execute on everything we’ve been planning.”

Newsom was even more specific in her appraisals.

“I think [if] we play good solid defense, shut down their high-low game and have a good shooting day … we’ll be fine,” she said.