By TIM PULSIFER
---- — ONEONTA — Prior to the start of the season, Plattsburgh State women’s basketball head coach Cheryl Cole felt she had the nucleus of a team capable of accomplishing some special things over the course of the 2012-2013 campaign.
As it turns out, she was right. And they’re not done yet.
The Cardinals ended their regular season flying high with a season-best fiive game home winning streak to qualify as the No. 5 seed for the State University of New York Athletic Conference (SUNYAC) tournament.
Plattsburgh (14-11, 10-8 SUNYAC) will meet fourth-seeded Oneonta (13-12, 10-8) in the quarterfinal round of the tourney this evening. Tip-off is slated for 7 p.m.
“We made a statement over the last week or so of the regular season, proving we were capable of beating anyone in our conference at home,” said Cole. “Now, we just have to prove that we can get it done on the road, as well. It won’t be easy, but we’ve played our way into this position and are excited to be here.”
Tonight’s quarterfinal match-up features two teams that know each other very well. Sporting identical conference marks, the Red Dragons earned the higher seed and the accompanying home court advantage, having defeated the Cardinals in both of this year’s meetings. Both contests were physical, competitive games in which Plattsburgh held early leads, but wound up losing by scores of 65-52 and 56-52.
“That’s O.K., at this point, we kind of like that, going into this match-up,” said Cole. “Not that we expect anything but their best, especially not in the tournament. But, it’s very easy to look past a team you’ve already beaten, that’s just human nature and I think, it also makes us that much hungrier as a team. Also, you know what they say about beating a good team three times in row.”
As noted, Plattsburgh has saved its very best basketball for last. Kathleen Payne has had another MVP caliber season and was once again, the catalyst in the Cardinals late-season surge. The junior standout is currently third in the conference in scoring and was recently recognized for the second time this season as SUNYAC Player of the Week, for her contributions over the final three games of the regular season. Brittany Marshall has also regained her stride of late and has reestablished herself as one the premier point guards in the conference.
Added to the mix is a talented blend of veteran and first-year players who have gained valuable experience and gelled at both ends of the floor, at just the right time.
With the regular season ending on such a positive note, is it possible that Plattsburgh will be resting on its laurels, happy just to have come this far, having won 14 games and reached the tournament?
“They’d better not,” said Cole. “True, our first goal was to make the tournament and we did that. Our second and third goals however, are still within our reach. We wanted to win a tournament game or two and then try for a championship. Those are our ultimate goals.”
If the Cardinals are to advance beyond tonight’s quarterfinals, however, they will have to find a way to get past a well-balanced and well-coached Red Dragons squad that had the Cardinals’ number over the regular season and has been on a bit of a roll themselves. Oneonta won three of its last four regular season games including a dramatic, playoff-clinching overtime win at top-seeded New Paltz, this past Friday night.
The Red Dragons, led by Kristen Pappalardo (10.8 ppg), Grace Schilling (9.3 ppg) and Alyshia Crawford (8.0 ppg), feature superior balance on offense and one of the best scoring defenses in the conference.
The winner of tonight’s quarterfinal matchup between Plattsburgh and Oneonta will move on to face top-seeded New Paltz in the semis on Friday night (8 p.m.). Tonight’s other quarterfinal game will pit No. 6 Cortland at No. 3 Oswego, with the winner of that game playing No. 2 Geneseo, in Friday’s other semifinal matchup. The survivors of those game will meet for the overall SUNYAC tournament Championship on Saturday afternoon (4 p.m.)