By Tom Bone
For The Register-Herald
The in-conference basketball season starts this afternoon for Concord University, with Pitt-Johnstown visiting Athens in what is likely to be their final trip to the Carter Center.
The Concord Lady Lions take on the Mountain Cats at 1 p.m., followed by the men’s game.
The Mountain Lions (2-0) started the season by claiming the championship of the Mercyhurst (Pa.) Invitational.
“I’m glad we were on the road and went 2-0. We learned to win on the road,” Concord head coach Kent McBride said. “The old adage is, if you hold serve at home, and go and eke out some road wins, you can be successful.”
“Our system, in the first two games, worked. And these guys have bought in, because we’ve physically worn the other team down.”
To do that, fresh players must come off the bench and play effectively. McBride thinks they are ready for that.
“We press the whole time, probably, and keep the pressure on. One thing that I feel is our strength, not just in this game, is our depth.”
McBride said that Pitt Johnstown’s veteran coach Bob Rukavina is “a guy I really look up to.”
“His team is going to be one hard out, they always are, every year. They always have bigs, and (all-conference point guard) Nick Novak is as good as you’re going to see in this conference, in term of guards.
“One thing you can bet on with Bob Rukavina’s teams, they are going to be very efficient in the half-court offense. They are consistently in the top three in the conference in field-goal percentage, because they take good shots.
“They’re not going to beat themselves,” McBride said. “It’s going to be contrasting styles. We’re going to speed it up, and they’re going to play controlled. So we’re going to have to see what prevails.
“We’ll see. It’ll be a fun game. Last year we won at the buzzer ... and I don’t expect anything different on Saturday.
“It’s Thanksgiving break, so who knows what kind of student section will turn out, but we always get very good community support, and Concord’s always been a really good home basketball team. We were last year.
“Hopefully, we can continue it, even though we do have all of these young guys.”
The conference preseason coaches poll picked UPJ for eighth place and Concord was 10th.
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The Lady Lions, who begin the doubleheader, won their first game of the season on Wednesday, beating West Virginia Tech 86-81 in overtime.
Amanda Smith, a Princeton Senior High grad, led the Lady Lions (1-2) in their first home contest with a career-high 30 points on 14-for-21 shooting. Stephanie Wagner had 15 points and five assists, and Tanisha Williams added 15 points.
Concord head coach Kenny Osborne said on Friday, “We found a way to win. ... I thought Amanda Smith played the best game she’s played since she’s been at Concord. She put us on her back and carried us.”
Osborne said, “She also had seven rebounds, she had a couple of steals. She even had a steal for a breakaway lay-up. She had a complete game.
“I told her yesterday in practice, you’ve got to do that every night. Now, you’re not going to always score 30, but ... with injuries and the whole deal, we’ve got to have Amanda Smith step up and be a leader for us.”
The Athenians have two key performers on the sidelines due to injury.
Andrea Bertrand, who averaged 13 points and seven rebounds last season, has a dislocated shoulder. Osborne said about her return, “We’ll have to play that one by ear.” Former Summers County all-stater Leslie Mack has an ankle injury that will keep her out of action “probably another week,” Osborne said.
“We just keep tinkering with the lineup. It got us back in the clearing game, and it gave us a good lift the other night, basically playing three little guards. That’s how we got the big lead.
“We’ll do what we have to do, whether it’s little, or try to get as big as we can be. But we’re going to try for a lineup that matches up very well with the other team, and go with it from there.”
Osborne said, “If everybody gets on the same page and put a game together, I think we have a chance to be a decent team.
“A team’s got to find its chemistry. We’ve got to find that niche, where a team comes together. And I think that will come, over time.”
Concord was fourth in the preseason coaches’ poll, and UPJ was projected eighth.
Pitt Johnstown was 14-13 last season and returns Kaitlynn Fratz, the conference freshman of the year last spring. Three-point specialist Kelsey Sleighter sank nearly 40 percent of her trey tries last season.
Osborne said about UPJ, “You look at the second semester last year, Johnstown played as good or better than anybody. They got off to a slow start, because they were so very young last year. But now, they’ve all been together for a year ... and they had a winning season, after the start they had.
“They’ll be a big challenge for us, and I just hope we can stand up to it.”
The Concord women have won their first conference game four times in the last five years.
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