It has been a tumultuous roller-coaster ride of a season for the men’s basketball team. Picked to finish fifth in the HCAC preseason coaches’ poll, the Ravens did just that, winning their last two conference games of the season, earning sole possession of fifth-place in the HCAC and qualifying for the postseason conference tournament.
After a great start to the season in nonconference play, there were times throughout the season when the postseason outlook for the Ravens was bleak. A couple of head-scratching losses early in HCAC play left AU likely needing back-to-back road wins against top seeded Rose-Hulman and fourth-seed Transylvania in order to secure a spot in the tournament. The team did just that, knocking off Rose 89-81 and Transylvania 92-87.
“Our season to this point has had some really tough moments,” Coach Handy said in a press release. “Our team has battled through them, and I’m really pleased for these guys that their work and growth has earned an opportunity to play in the conference tournament.”
In the win over Rose, Malik Laffoon led the way with 20 points off the bench. The Transylvania victory was also spurred on by another player scoring 20 points off the bench, this time coming in the form of the most experienced player in an AU uniform.
Cory Kreiger was 5-5 from the field, all of his shots coming from behind the three-point line, and 5-5 from the free throw line. He added four rebounds as well. His twenty points set a new career high, topping his previous mark of 17.
“My teammates did a great job of giving me the ball when I was open,” said Kreiger. “Luckily I was able to knock down my shots on Saturday.”
Kreiger was perfect from the field for the week, earning HCAC Player of the Week honors. Kreiger was the third Raven to earn the award, joining Stanley Duncan and Trevor Lucas as recipients.
The victory capped what has been a career full of wins for the senior guard. Cory has the most wins of any player to don the orange and black since AU joined the HCAC. He explained what picking up the win Saturday meant to him.
“It felt really good to finish my last regular season game on a high note individually,” he said, “but it felt even better to get the win and be able to keep playing with these guys.”
Having secured a spot in the tournament, there is likely no team in the bracket that would celebrate having to play AU. The Ravens still boast one of the most talented rosters in the conference, and appear to have finally clicked as a unit down the stretch, winning four games in a row, and five out of six, to cap the regular season. No other team in conference has currently won more than two consecutive games.
“We’ve really focused on being us for the past couple of weeks,” said Kreiger. “We’ve focused on giving a complete effort for 40 minutes every time we step on the floor.”
A team motto throughout the season has been “tough and together.” During a stretch of play when many teams could have folded, AU lived up to their claim.
“We have really embodied that and stayed together through these must-win games,” Kreiger said.
Last year’s team ran rough-shod through the conference, picking up 14 wins in HCAC play before bowing out in the first-round of the tourney after being upset by Manchester. In a role reversal from last season, the door is open for AU to play the part of spoiler. If they are to make a run to the tournament championship, they will have to take a familiar path.
AU returned to Transylvania last night for a rematch from Saturday’s game, once more battling the Pioneers (the results were not available at the time of print). If the Ravens emerged victorious, they will venture back to Rose-Hulman to take on the Fightin’ Engineers.
Having clawed their way into the tournament, and now donning the unfamiliar title of underdog, this AU team is playing with house money.
“We’ve embraced the role of being an underdog,” said Wes Davidson. “We can play with anybody in the conference when we play how we’re capable. We’re playing good basketball, which leaves us optimistic for the tourney.”