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Lady Hawks In Final Showdown with American

Understandably, a lot of the buzz this week is going to be directed towards the men's basketball game on Friday, as they battle "that school in Easton" in a Rivalry-flavored Patriot League Championship game on ESPN2.

But that's not the only nationally-televised championship game being played in the Lehigh Valley this weekend.

The Lady Hawks - who are looking for their second straight Patriot League championship and NCAA tournament appearance - play this Saturday at 6:00 PM at the STAR for their shot at the big dance as well on CBS College Sports.

While the men have the "Rivalry" in their tournament game, the Lady Hawks have something else: record-breaking streaks that head coach Sue Troyan hopes will help carry the Lady Hawks back to the NCAA tournament. (more)



With Lehigh and American having quite a bit of basketball success since the 2001 season - the first season that the Eagles joined the Patriot League - it's surprising to learn that the Lady Hawks and Lady Eagles have only met once before in the Patriot League tournament.  In 2004, American earned a 71-58 victory over Lehigh in what was essentially a home game for the Lady Eagles, played at Upper Marlboro, Maryland.  American is the only current Patriot League school that Lehigh has not beaten in the postseason tournament.

Last year, it seemed like No. 1 seed Lehigh was destined to face No. 2 seed American in the championship game as well - but an improbable 68-66 upset of the Lady Eagles by No. 7 seed Lafayette and a win the next day over No. 3-seeded Navy 62-55 set up a "Rivalry"-themed final last year in the STAR for the Lady Hawks.   That game - actually the second time the Lehigh ladies had faced off against the Lady Leopards for the Patriot League championship - ended up being a battle that Lehigh would ultimately survive 64-56.

This year, though, American and Lehigh didn't do any stumbling in the first rounds of the tournament.  Matter of fact, both teams demonstrated what fans had known all along: that they were head and shoulders above the rest of the league.  The Lady Hawks and Lady Eagles have only lost to one team since January 4th: each other, with the Lady Eagles taking the first game 69-65 in overtime in the District and Lehigh winning at Stabler 53-46.  According to Real Time RPI, both Lehigh and American have RPI's in the top 100 (Lehigh at 58, and American at 97).

In addition Lehigh and American are 1 or 2 in pretty much every statistical category in the Patriot League.  Both have great team defense, good rebounding, and are tough outs no matter how you look at it.

The matchup this Saturday - without a doubt - is a matchup between the best the Patriot League has to offer.

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The Lady Hawks have to be happy that this game is going to be played at Stabler Arena, since the Lady Hawks have an incredible streak going at the STAR.  They haven't lost a game - regular season or championship game - at home since 2008.

Forget for a moment the incredible achievements of the Lehigh team this year: 27 wins so far - a school record - with hopes for the 28th this Saturday. Forget the 15 straight wins - a Patriot League record - with hopes for the 16th this Saturday.  And forget the fact that Lehigh is 54-10 since the start of last season - only the incredible UConn Lady Huskies (60), Stanford (60), Ohio State (56) and Marist (55) have more wins over that span.

The Lady Hawks last lost at Stabler to Lafayette 59-43 on February 3rd, 2008 - and haven't lost since at home.  And it's not like Lehigh has packed the home schedule with patsies: they scheduled Villanova out of the Big East at home this year (whom they beat 80-65) and 22-9 St. Bonaventure out of the Atlantic 10 (whom they beat - in a close game - 68-66).  The Bonnies are a bubble team in this year's NCAA tournament - and Lehigh's home winning streak went right through them.

Lehigh hopes that home court will work for them once again - and to be undefeated at Stabler for two years running.

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American though, has a streak of their own to protect.  Eight straight wins - and only one loss since January 4th, to Lehigh - and a perfect record against Lehigh in the Patriot League tournament.

What makes them go?  Junior G/F Michelle Kirk (17.9 ppg, 6 rpg) and junior F Liz Leer (13.0 ppg, 6.2 rpg) and a frontcourt that can give anybody problems scoring and rebounding.  Add to this mix 6'2 senior C Ohemaa Nyanin (4.5 ppg, 6.2 rpg) and you have a frontcourt with size and rebounding power, averaging 37 per game.

Their backcourt features a rotation of guards, with sophomore G Raven Harris at the point (3.3 apg) and sophomore G Ebony Edwards (5.3 ppg) or senior G Nicole Ryan (7.1 ppg) spelling her.  While the Lady Eagles do most of their scoring underneath, like Lehigh, it's defense that is their calling card: they are only allowing 53.5 ppg, which is good enough for 10th best in the nation.

Nobody else in the Patriot League boasts this combination of frontcourt strength and shut-down defense.  Maybe that's why in the practice in the run-up to the championship game head coach Sue Troyan has the team wearing shirts that say "Be Great".

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Keys to Lehigh victory:
1. Post defense.  Sophomore C Alexa Williams and senior G Tricia Smith have the tough challenge of making sure that Leer and Kirk don't go wild underneath the basket, and that means they will have to continue the great defense they've shown all year.  If they can be limited to, say, 20 points between them, we have a good chance of winning this game.  Their efforts, and a great game from sophomore F Emily Gratch, will be crucial.
2. Outside shooting.  If senior G Alex Ross can get warmed up from 3-point land, that could be a huge extra dimension that could make it difficult for the Lady Eagles to stay with Lehigh.  Junior G Erica Prosser - the consummate playmaker - might do well to find Ross early and often.
3. Free Throws.  One of Lehigh's weaknesses all year have been free throws - 67% on the year.  If this looks to be a close game - and it does - the charity stripe may play a huge role.  Lehigh needs to make those big free points late in the game if they hope to win.

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Finally, if the men win on Friday at Stabler they may very well become very large fans of the Lady Hawks.

If both the Lehigh men and women win the Patriot League autobid, there is a chance that the NCAA playoff committees may very well try to group both teams together regionally.  This would benefit Lehigh in terms of costs.  For example, why ship the men to Buffalo, NY and the women to Spokane, WA when you could put both the men and women in Tallahassee, FL and Jacksonville, FL and give the student and fan support sections (like the band and cheerleaders) a chance to attend at least two NCAA games?

I don't know if that's the way the NCAA tournament people operate, but it may push the Lehigh men out of the realm of the NCAA play-in game and into a true 16 - or maybe even 15 - seed.

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