The early season preliminary part of the schedule is over for the Skidmore College men's basketball team.
Friday the Thoroughbreds got down to business, hosting Bard College in a Liberty League opener at the Williamson Sports Center. The result was a good reason to hold a post-holiday celebration.
But the visiting Raptors did their best to spoil the Skidmore party.
In a battle from the opening tip, the Thoroughbreds needed a late second-half surge on offense to get some breathing room. But it was play on defense that helped Skidmore secure a 55-49 victory.
"One of the things we've talked about all week, is you can't take anybody lightly in league play – it just can't happen," Skidmore coach Joe Burke said. "You have to grind it out, scratch, claw and hope to be on top at the end.
"We're two-time defending champions, so everybody is coming in here looking to knock us out. We're going to get the best game from everybody."
The triumph offset a 90-79 Dec. 29 loss in Maryland to Stevenson University that finished 2012 for Skidmore, now 7-3 (1-0) overall.
"They're greatly improved, so we knew it would be a grind," Connor Merrill said. "They play hard on the defensive end and are very scrappy, but I thought we responded well from our last game."
Bard (3-5, 0-1) definitely showed it wanted to leave town with a victory, taking a 27-25 halftime lead on a Pat Lichtenstein three-point bomb.
"The league is always really challenging because there's such good coaches in it," Bard coach Adam Turner said. "Joe (Burke) is an awesome coach and we had to prepare four days just to stay competitive with the stuff they do."
Bard refused to go away in the second half, finding itself still within striking distance (43-39) with 8:10 left on a three-point goal from Chris McNaughton. But consecutive three-point goals from Merrill and Tanner Brooks bought the Thoroughbreds a 10-point margin at the 7:58 mark.
"Our transition defense literally went to sleep for about two minutes and that was the difference," Turner said. "They were able to make that run when they went up by 10 pretty much out of transition. We cut it to six or five, but it just wasn't enough."
Bard finished the game with an 8-4 spurt to create the final margin.
Brooks dumped in a game-high 18 points to lead the Thoroughbreds, followed by Merrill with a dozen. McNaughton paced Bard with 16 points.
"Their freshman was tremendous," Turner said. "We did a tremendous job with Aldin (Medunjanin - nine points), but Tanner made a lot of plays for them and that's what it comes down to – who is going to make plays at the end of the game."
Both teams were virtually even on the shooting chart, each finishing at 44 percent. Skidmore hit 23-of-52 shots, while the Raptors were good on 21-of-47 tries. The difference may have been on the defensive end, where Bard totaled 16 turnovers compared to just nine for the Thoroughbreds.
"That's what I was proud of the most – we controlled the basketball better than we have in the past," Burke said. "I thought that was huge because they were making shots. When they make shots, they can beat just about anybody, so it was important for us to take care of the ball."
Burke also thinks that starting with Saturday’s 4pm matchup against visiting Hobart College, Friday's battle will pay dividends.
"Any time you go in a game and win the way we did, you learn more from that than from a game that gets away," he said. "I think it makes the guys realize that when you go into league play, everybody can beat everybody."
ON THE WIRE