Lions enter conference play at the top of the food chain

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Media: Rachel Culver

Sophomore Zach Waterhouse is averaging 14.5 points per game while shooting 37 percent from behind the arc.

By Ethan McDowell, Sports Editor

Men’s basketball head coach Bill Curley knew his team’s mentality needed to change following its 2019 NEWMAC championship. 

The Lions are no longer underdogs, and Curley wants the squad to keep this in mind as they continue conference play.

“Last year we got to hunt people down, and no one thought much of us,” Curley said in an interview. “Now everyone’s really mad. They’re not just overlooking us. You’re the hunted now, and you’re getting everybody’s best effort.”

The Lions currently hold a 9-5 overall record and are 2-1 in conference play. After beginning the season with a pair of wins by 20 or more points, the team lost three straight matchups. The Lions have now won seven of their last nine games and are tied for third in the NEWMAC standings

Senior guard Jack O’Connor leads the team in scoring with 18.5 points per game and is averaging a career-high 8.6 rebounds per game. On Jan. 2 the Lions played Nichols College without O’Connor, who missed the game due to an injury.

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The team won 87-81 in overtime, as sophomore guard Zach Waterhouse led the team with 25 points and four rebounds. Sophomore center Jarred Houston scored 21 points, pulled down 16 rebounds, and blocked three shots. These performances resulted in the Lions winning the NEWMAC offensive and defensive player of the week awards on Jan. 6. 

“It was a huge step for these guys to figure out how to win without O’Connor and without Geoff Gray against a team like that, but we want to see more consistency day in and day out,” Curley said. 

Houston and Waterhouse average 13 and 15 points respectively, and Houston, who leads the NEWMAC in field goal percentage at 66 percent, credits their improved play to his work over the summer. 

“I think it all starts in the off-season,” Houston said in an interview. “I think a big focus was just getting into better shape so I could make plays on the defensive end and just move around a lot quicker. I know I’m not where I want to be yet, but I think I’ve definitely taken the leap from where I was towards the end of last year to the midseason point that we’re at right now.”

Waterhouse said he and Houston have to play a larger role in the offense now that Geoff Gray ‘19 graduated, and as a result he is guarded differently than last year. 

“They might not have known much about us freshmen last year, but the way they play Jared now, they hang back off me or press up because I’m a shooter,” Waterhouse said in an interview. “It’s just a little more difficult, but at the end of the day it’s just basketball.” 

Despite returning four of their five starters from the 2018-19 season, 12 of the 16 men on the roster are underclassmen. 

“We have a very young team, and they’re still trying to figure out what it takes,” Curley said. “We had great success last year, but we had a great leader with Gray and some guys that were battle-tested with O’Connor, but now they have to take that next step to lead this team when their shots are not going that way.”

Curley’s philosophy of unselfishness has led to a team average of 85 points per game on 47 percent shooting. Curley said the team is full of offensive talent, but he thinks the fast-scoring mentality of the team hurts them on defense at times. 

“We have a lot of weapons,” Curley said. “I think we have a lot of guys that are skilled, and I think that’s also not helping our defense because we were able to score real quickly. We want our guys to be confident to take shots and step up, and we have guys that can really do that. But sometimes you got to get a little bit more pace and we can get that same shot 20 seconds later.”

Curley said the team’s defense needed to improve, and they showed this in a 54-44 victory over the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They held the Beavers to eight points in the second half. Waterhouse says the team is ready for the remainder of conference play thanks to a tough non-conference schedule. 

“The NEWMAC is very physical, and they just have long drawn out games,” Waterhouse said.  “You have the game plan really heavily for them, and I think playing those games in the first half of the season really helps us.”