The Bears lost to #11 Swarthmore College in the semi-final round of the Centennial Conference (CC) playoffs on Friday, 68-49.
Before facing the top-seeded Garnett, the Bears earned a home playoff game against Dickinson, a matchup that they won 80-76.
Relating how Ursinus’ preparation in the square-off against Dickinson, sophomore forward Shane Stark said, “We prepared for Dickinson by going through our regular routine which includes going over the [scouting report] and looking over film to see what they like to do. Our main point was to just go out there and have fun playing basketball.”
Ursinus went 16-9 overall, with a 12-6 record against the CC, to earn the fourth seed in the tournament to set up the matchup against fifth-seeded Dickinson.
The Bears were helped all season with contributions from all over the lineup. They regularly went 10 players deep down the stretch and nine players averaged over 10 minutes per game.
Senior forward Zach Quattro led the Bears’ scoring barrage with 14.6 ppg. He also led the team in three-point percentage (41.2 percent) among players who attempted at least one three-pointer per game.
Stark’s emergence was also a major key for Ursinus all season. The Collegeville native led the team in rebounding, notching exactly 200 rebounds for the season (7.4 per game). The budding star also led the squad in shooting percentage for the second time in as many seasons among players with over 90 shot attempts.
Freshman George Gordon technically led the team in shooting percentage, but Gordon had 57 shot attempts compared to Stark’s 203.
A huge factor for the Bears was not only Stark’s emergence as a prolific rebounder and efficient scorer, but his distributing. Stark was third on the team with 2.3 assists per game behind only point guards Brian Rafferty (4.4 per game) and Zack Muredda (2.5 apg), a remarkable stat for a 6-6 forward.
Stark’s distributing was on full display in the win over Dickinson. His six assists against the Red Devils paired well with his 17 points and 8 rebounds.
Said Stark, “The coaches have trusted me more and more in my abilities which has given me more opportunity to show what I can do. I love being able to hit the open man and make the extra pass in order to get a basket.”
The match against Dickinson was close for the entire game. The largest leads of the game were 13 and 9 by Ursinus and Dickinson, respectively, and there were four ties and five lead changes throughout the contest.
Dickinson turned to an obscure strategy during the game. They elected to give Stark the ‘Shaquille O’Neal’ treatment by intentionally fouling him several times in “one-and-one” situations. This strategy is typically reserved for NBA centers like the aforementioned O’Neal or DeAndre Jordan; it’s not often seen at the Division III level.
The efficacy of this strategy is debatable. Stark went 5-9 from the charity stripe on the night but has shot just 45.2 percent from the free throw line this season, so if there was somebody the Red Devils should have tried it on, it was Stark.
Stark stepped up, however, by playing a fantastic all-around game, and shooting very competently from the line when they needed him to in the playoff showdown. Stark is motivated to improve his free-throw percentages for next year to avoid getting the “Hack-a-Shaq” (or rather, “Hack-a-Stark”) treatment again.
“It made me want to go to the line and show the other team that I can make them [free throws], rather than be scared and lose confidence,” said Stark.
Stark was the biggest player in the game for the Bears and his stat line tells that story. He also made the biggest individual play of the game. With 8:13 left in the game, Dickinson was on a big run. They had cut the Bears’ 13-point lead to just five points when Stark weaved through the Dickinson defense for a thunderous slam dunk to put the Bears back up by seven and give them a much-needed energy boost to finish out the game.
“It felt great, I saw an open lane and tried to make the most of it. I knew if I was able to finish the dunk, my teammates would be fired up and the momentum would be back in our hands,” Stark said.
It ultimately came down to free throws at the end of the game and the Bears kept it interesting. Up 79-76 with just five seconds left, junior Eric Williams Jr. was sent to the free throw line with the chance to clinch the game for Ursinus with just one bucket. Williams uncharacteristically missed both free throws. Dickinson airballed their next attempt and fouled senior co-captain Brian Rafferty. Rafferty was sent to the line and missed the first of the two attempts, but was finally able to ice the game in the Bears’ favor on the second shot to move up by four points with virtually no time left in the game.
The Bears did not fare as well in a rematch against Swarthmore on Friday night in the CC semifinals, despite their unwavering motivation and effort.
“Our team goal coming into the season was to win a Centennial Conference Championship,” said Rafferty, “after the playoff game last year we all had a bad taste in our mouths.”
They got the rematch they wanted, but ultimately were not able to overcome an elite Swarthmore team that defeated them twice in the regular season.
The Bears truly played as well as they could, but Swarthmore’s elite defense still held them under 50 points.
Ursinus held the Garnet scoreless through nearly four minutes of play, but because Swarthmore is so well-coached and elite defensively, they had only amassed a two-point lead in that time.
Quattro led the Bears in points with 17. Williams Jr. and sophomore Ryan McTamney each dished out three assists in the game. McTamney’s near double-double (12 points, 9 rebounds) was not enough to put Ursinus over reigning CC Player of the Year, Cam Wiley, and his 23 points.
The Bears’ season ended at the hands of Swarthmore, a team that ultimately lost the CC Championship to Johns Hopkins University 61-57. Hopkins overcame a nine-point halftime deficit to take the CC crown.
The Bears will focus their attention on next season as they look for increased contributions from all of their returning players.