Coach’s Corner: How Bucknell won the Patriot League yet again

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 28: Head coach Aaron Roussell of the Bucknell Bison looks on during a women's college basketball game against the American University Eagles at Bender Arena on February 28, 2015 in Washington, DC. The Eagles 65-55. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 28: Head coach Aaron Roussell of the Bucknell Bison looks on during a women's college basketball game against the American University Eagles at Bender Arena on February 28, 2015 in Washington, DC. The Eagles 65-55. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images) /

A big week ahead for Aaron Roussell’s program

Top-seeded Bucknell begins it playoff quest as it takes on Loyola Maryland in a quarterfinal matchup.  The 25-5 Bison swept the season-series against the Greyhounds. The program heads into the postseason having grabbed a share of the Patriot League regular season title for the third time in four years.

How it happened

A blistering second-half shooting performance helped Bucknell clinch the top-seed for the tournament with a win over Army in its regular-season finale, 84-66.  Junior Ellie Mack led the team with a career-high 29 points, including seven threes. Kate Walker added 24 points in her final regular season contest.

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Head Coach Aaron Roussell, in his seventh season, has led the program to three straight national postseason showings, including the NCAAs in 2017 after claiming the Patriot League Tournament title. Expectations are high in Lewisburg. The team’s senior class has posted a 64-8 league record during its four years and earned the tournament’s top-seed for the second time in that span.

Back to the future

The Bison fell to Navy in a semifinal upset last season.  Now, the team is looking to return to championship form. “When you have expectations like this group has, the expectation is that you are able to hold the championship trophy again at the end,” Roussell told High Post Hoops this week. Roussell guided the program to its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2008.

“When you have five seniors that have been there before, they’ve won a championship and know how cool and special it is,” he said. “There is definitely a sense of urgency.  They know how great 2017 felt, and on the other side of that, they know how bad [2018] the other way felt. There’s really no in-between.”

The road to redemption

The team is led in the backcourt by senior guard Kate Walker, named a second-team Patriot League selection this season. Walker looks ahead but shares the motivational aspect of last season’s playoff result: “We definitely talked about it when it happened and then the beginning of this year,” said Walker in a phone interview on Friday.  “It’s something I think is in the back of all our minds but it’s also a whole new year with a completely different look for our team.”

Part of that new look for the team is the conversion of junior Ellie Mack from guard to forward this season. The 6’ 3” Mack claimed first-team Patriot League honors this year, posting 12.7 points per game and 6.7 rebounds per game. “It’s really a transition that was based on team needs.  I feel like it’s suiting me better because I am guarding players who are more my size and not a lot quicker than me,” said Mack in a phone interview Friday.

The splash sisters

The change has created mismatches and forced opponents to extend their perimeter defense. Senior forward Kaitlyn Slagus joins Mack as one of the top three-point shooting forwards in the league. Slagus, who also earned first-team Patriot League honors this season, is third in the league in three-point field goal percentage.  She is 35 for 87 for a .402 percentage from beyond the arc and tops in overall shooting percentage.

Slagus has helped the Bison to a league-leading .379 three-point shooting percentage, with the team hitting 250 shots from deep for 8.3 makes a game. “Kaitlyn is one of the best finishers around the basket,” said Roussell. “But she can also step out and shoot 40% from three.  I think that’s a really tough cover, especially with how we play in our offense.” Slagus heads into the playoffs as the program’s all-time leader in rebounds with 925 and ranks eighth in program history with 1,429 points.  She averages 12.8 points and 7.4 rebounds per game.

Chemistry 101

Team chemistry for the sharp-shooting group has fueled the squad’s success this season.  Bucknell leads the league in offense, scoring 72.5 points per game and dishing out 15.4 assists. They share the ball and the credit.

That cohesiveness for the Bison began this year with a visit to Europe in July, stopping in Berlin, Prague, and Vienna. “I think that gave them a little leg up to start the season,” said Roussell, who is the son of Army parents and also born in Berlin. “It was huge for the camaraderie and chemistry for this year’s team.”

“I think it helped us initially with chemistry and creating a tight bond right off the bat,” added Walker. “I think it normally takes a few months for us to get to where we all feel comfortable playing with each other and around each other.”

Eyes on the prize

It’s back to the fundamentals—rebounding and defense–as the Bison take aim for the program’s third Patriot League crown. “We have got to make sure that we’re not giving people extra chances–that’s going to be a huge key in the next few weeks,” said Roussell.

The team’s rebounding margin is +1.2 per game for 6th in the league.  “You look at the games we have lost and we’ve gotten our tails kicked on the boards,” he continued. Bucknell was outrebounded in both of their conference losses this season.

“We’ve shown that we have a really explosive offense, so we just need to be consistent on defense,” offers senior captain, Walker. “It’s so cliché, but ‘defense wins championships’ and we’re going to need to really step it up.”

Where and When

Bucknell heads into the quarterfinals on Monday March 11 with a 6:00pm EST tip. Semifinals are Thursday, March 14.  The Patriot League Championship will be played as 12:00pm on Sunday, March 17.

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