By Tim Pulsifer
---- — NEW PALTZ — Plattsburgh State’s women’s basketball team probably has not struck a whole lot of fear into the hearts of many of its SUNY Athletic Conference opponents over the years.
Only a handful of winning seasons and no conference championships will do that to you.
This year however, the Cardinals have taken one big step toward changing that perception, and are now just a win away from their first appearance in the SUNY Athletic Conference Tournament title game.
No. 5 seed Plattsburgh (15-11, 11-8 SUNYAC), will have another opportunity to show just how far the program has come tonight when it faces top-seeded New Paltz (22-3, 16-2 SUNYAC), in the semifinals at the Hawk Center. No. 2 seed Geneseo and No. 3 seed Oswego will meet in the other semifinal, and the winners will play Saturday.
After an up-and-down regular season, the Cardinals have caught fire over the latter stages of the season, winning a season-best six games in a row, including victories over Geneseo, Cortland and Oswego, as well as defending SUNYAC champion Oneonta in the quarterfinals Tuesday night.
In each of those contests Plattsburgh knocked off a team ahead of them in the overall standings.
“If people want to call us underdogs, we’re OK with that,” Cardinals coach Cheryl Cole said. “At this point in the season, though, records and rankings or history really don’t mean anything. I guess if being considered an underdog gives us a little chip on our shoulder and gives us a little extra motivation, then that’s a good thing.
“But right now everyone is 0-0 and the only game that matters is the one right in front of us. Right now, we’re not thinking about making it to Saturday’s final or anything else. Right now, we’re focusing on doing what we do best and getting a win over a very good New Paltz team.”
Rebounding and defense have been the two primary factors behind Plattsburgh’s success. In general, when the Cardinals have outrebounded teams and when they have shut people down, they have won games. Those two factors will, once again, be put to the test tonight.
“We’ve played (New Paltz) twice this year, so we know they’re an explosive, athletic team that likes to score in transition,” Cole said. “We have a lot of respect for New Paltz. In many ways, they’re a lot like us. The key for us, however, is to win the game on the boards, box out and to find a way to slow them down in transition.
“For us it all starts with defense. We can’t give up 70-plus points and expect to win; that’s just not who we are. But I think if we focus on playing great team defense, rebound the basketball like we know we can and stick to our game plan, we’ll give ourselves a real chance. Right now, we’re playing our best basketball, feeling very good about ourselves and ready to face this next challenge. It should be another great game”
For a second straight tournament game, Plattsburgh will be facing one of only two conference teams to have swept them over the course of the regular season. The Hawks needed overtime to edge the Cardinals 75-71 back on Jan.18 and then won 72-60 at New Paltz on Feb. 12.
Of note, the Cardinals also dropped both of their regular-season games to Oneonta, only to win by 14 points in the SUNYAC quarterfinals. That was just the second postseason victory for Plattsburgh in program history. The Cardinals will be looking for a similar reversal of fortunes tonight versus the Hawks.
Plattsburgh continues to be led by Kathleen Payne (14.7 ppg.,), who has made another strong case for SUNYAC Player of the Year in 2012-2013. Payne, who is currently second in the conference in scoring and in the top 10 in rebounding as well, has been outstanding all season long, particularly down the stretch for the Cardinals, and poured in a season-high 26 points in the playoff win over Oneonta.
Alex McCullough (10.8 points per game), Michelle Valle (9.7 ppg., 8.0 rebounds per game) and Maliqua Fisher (9.3 ppg) have been the top three contributors all year for the Hawks, who have sat at the top of the conference standings for virtually the entire season.