COLLEGEVILLE, Pa. – The Ursinus College men's basketball team has taken a step forward each of the last two seasons.
The Bears earned the fifth seed in the Centennial Conference tournament two years ago and knocked off Johns Hopkins on the road in the first round. Last season, Ursinus moved up to the number four seed and downed Dickinson in a home first-round game. Both campaigns ended at the hands of host Swarthmore in the semifinals.
This year, Ursinus again ascended one slot to the number three seed. The destination remains the same – the Bears only hope the journey reaches its full culmination.
The Bears find themselves back at Swarthmore's Tarble Pavilion for the CC championship tournament, which gets underway Friday night at 6 p.m. with a matchup against second-seeded Hopkins. The top-seeded Garnet host fourth-seeded Washington College in the other semifinal, with the winners to return for the title game on Saturday.
Aside from their seeding, head coach Kevin Small and company plan on making three their lucky number for another reason. Having lost to the Blue Jays twice during the regular season, the Bears plan on making the third time the charm – proving the old cliché that it's hard to beat a good team three times.
The regular-season meetings with Johns Hopkins followed a similar blueprint – a double-digit deficit at halftime and a spirited second-half rally that ultimately fell short in a nine-point setback. The plan is clear this time around: to get off to a fast start.
Ursinus should be as well positioned as anyone to execute it, armed with the league's most potent offense and two of its top three scorers. The Bears lead the conference in scoring offense (78.9), field-goal percentage (48.0), 3-point percentage (40.5), and free-throw percentage (73.5), ranking among the top-15 in the country in 3-point accuracy.
Junior Ryan McTamney (17.1 PPG) and senior Eric Williams Jr. (16.6 PPG) are 2-3 in the conference in scoring, and Williams – who ranks first with a 44.8-percent success rate from long range – recently became the CC's all-time leader in 3-point field goals. Mix in a versatile forward in junior Shane Stark (10.4 PPG, 6.3 RPG); one of the top rookies in the conference in Ryan Hughes (9.4 PPG, 49.7 % FG); a do-it-all point guard in senior Zack Muredda (6.8 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 3.6 APG); and a productive reserve front line with sophomores George Gordon (8.8 PPG, 3.3 RPG) and Lucas Olshevski (5.2 PPG, 3.3 RPG), and Ursinus is cooking with gas.
Still, Hopkins has had the measure of the Bears this season. The defending conference champions lost sophomore point guard Conner Delaney to a season-ending injury just 10 games in, but have overcome that setback to go 17-8 and 14-4 in CC play. Senior Michael Gardner has been huge, averaging 14.8 points per game and leading the Blue Jays in 3-pointers (68) and assists (64).
Sophomore Joey Kern (10.3 PPG), freshman Braeden Johnson (8.7 PPG), and seniors Joey Fitzpatrick (5.1 PPG, 5.6 RPG) and Noah Ralby (4.3 PPG, 61 assists) make up a dangerous backcourt. Johnson came off the bench to score 21 points in Hopkins' 90-81 victory over Ursinus two weeks ago, while Ralby paired 12 points with a career-high 11 assists.
The Blue Jays boast an athletic frontcourt in senior Daniel Vila (7.6 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 28 blocks) and junior Harry O'Neil (7.4 PPG), who scored 19 points in the second meeting.
Johns Hopkins is particularly potent from long range, leading the CC in 3-pointers made per game (9.6) and sitting second in percentage (37.6). Gardner (68 3-pointers), Kern (51), and Johnson (48) make most of the Blue Jays' triples.
Ursinus 3-1 all-time against the Blue Jays in the CC tournament, including a 78-64 victory in Baltimore in the first round in 2017.
The Bears are 4-6 in conference semifinals, but a perfect 4-0 in the championship round. Should they get there, it would more than likely mean a third matchup with the host Garnet. No 4 or 5 seed has ever reached the CC final, and 6th-ranked Swarthmore hammered Washington College by an average of 27.5 points in two regular-season meetings.
The Garnet enter the tournament with their highest national ranking ever and a robust record of 22-3, but Ursinus knows the hosts aren't invincible. The Bears proved it, using a red-hot second half to grab a 94-88 upset over the then-No. 10 Garnet back on January 19. Eric Williams had 30 points, Stark finished with 21 points and nine rebounds, and McTamney added 19 points in that game for Ursinus, which snapped a nine-game losing streak to Swarthmore.