By JOHN CORYER
---- — PLATTSBURGH — Plattsburgh State men’s basketball coach Tom Curle and his staff have used their deep bench to perfection this season.
That bench strength will be tested more than ever this weekend.
The Cardinals close out their SUNY Athletic Conference regular season against conference-leading and nationally-ranked Cortland at 8 p.m. tonight and versus Oswego Saturday at Memorial Hall.
The bad news is Plattsburgh will be without standout junior forward John Perez, who is lost for the season after suffering a freak injury early in the second half of Tuesday’s 92-69 home victory over Potsdam. Perez is a team leader, as well as being second on the team in scoring and first in rebounding.
His presence will obviously be missed, and the injury couldn’t come at a worse time.
“I like the way we’re playing, but we’re going to have to do it now without John,” Curle said. “We have strength off the bench, and our bench is going to need to make an even bigger impact now. Players will need to step up even more.”
Plattsburgh (16-7, 12-4) has already clinched both a berth in the SUNYAC Tournament and a home game in the opening round should the Cardinals finish third or fourth in the standings.
The second-place Cardinals, however, need to win one of their two remaining games to finish in second and get a bye in the opening round.
It’s going to be difficult against Cortland (20-3, 14-2), which is one of the hottest teams in Division III, having won 12 games in a row.
The Red Dragons’ last three games were routs of Oneonta (84-56), Oswego (78-46) and, most recently, New Paltz (87-47) on Tuesday night.
Cortland, which recorded a 68-55 home victory over Plattsburgh on Dec. 1, has a whopping 14-point advantage in scoring differential over their opponents.
“You have to make them know that you’re going to compete against them all game long,” Curle said. “If you don’t compete against them for 40 minutes, they can make it a one-sided game.
“They’re a senior-laden team. They run their offense very effectively. We have to play our best basketball against them in order to win the game.”
The Red Dragons boast five players averaging in double figures — Jesse Winter (15.7), Jeremy Smith (14.6), Kevin McMahon (13.1), Brian Manning (11.6) and Harrison Hefele (10.2).
“Cortland is either at the top or second in the league in all statistical categories,” Curle said. “They are strong on the offensive boards, but so are we. Hopefully, we can use that to our advantage.”
The Cardinals have been playing some outstanding basketball of their own, winning nine of their last 11 games.
“We could still finish anywhere from second, third or fourth,” Curle said. “We need one more win to finish second, but what’s more important is to be playing our best basketball heading into the playoffs.”
The Cardinals could actually finish tied with Cortland for first place. Plattsburgh would need to win tonight and then defeat Oswego on Saturday, coupled with a Cortland loss at Potsdam on Saturday. That would be a stretch, however, and Curle is more concerned with what will happen at Memorial Hall.
Oswego (17-6, 10-6), meanwhile, is still in the running for second place and will play at Potsdam tonight before Saturday’s game against the Cardinals.
A Plattsburgh loss to Cortland and an Oswego win at Potsdam would make Saturday’s game a huge one.
One of the Cardinals’ biggest wins of the season came on Nov. 30 when they edged out a 59-57 decision at Oswego.
Hayden Ward (18.3) and Chris Gilkes (12.4) are the leading scorers for the Lakers, who are outscoring their opponents by a 72-64 margin.