BY JEFF FALK
ANNVILLE – There is no other venue in which the Lebanon Valley College women’s basketball program’s excellence is manifested more than the Commonwealth Conference playoffs. And in many ways, this is a new group carrying on an old tradition.
On Wednesday night inside the LVC Gymnasium, the Flying Dutchmen qualified for yet another Commonwealth Conference championship contest by dispatching Stevenson 70-60. The Flying Dutchmen raced out to a 28-16 halftime advantage, and then held Stevenson at bay during a high-scoring second half.
Not only was the win top-seeded Lebanon Valley’s seventh straight in the Commonwealth Conference tournament, it also qualified the Flying Dutchmen, who count ten freshmen and sophomores among their top 13, for their seventh consecutive appearance in the circuit’s final game. On Saturday at 3 p.m. at home, LVC, now 21-5, will be gunning for its fourth Commonwealth crown in-a-row, when it takes on old rival Messiah, which won at Elizabethtown in Wednesday’s other semifinal.
Saturday will mark the third time in four years that Lebanon Valley and Messiah have met for the title, and that includes LVC’s 46-43 triumph last season.
Stevenson, which had split with the Flying Dutchmen during the regular year, concluded its campaign at 14-13.
“It’s a little bit unbelievable,” said Lebanon Valley head coach Todd Goclowski. “It’s a tribute to the women in that locker room, and in a way, a tribute to the women who have been in that locker room before us. It’s exciting. But it’s a tribute to our student-athletes. It says a lot about our young women as players, student-athletes, and alumni. It’s a basketball family that has established itself with a terrific legacy.”
“I had no doubts that we could get to this point,” Goclowski continued. “I believe in my team. We expected to be where we hoped we’d be.”
Late in the first half, Lebanon Valley established a lead it would never relinquish. Over the final 9:31 of the half, the Flying Dutchmen outscored the Mustangs 15-4 to carry their 12-point advantage to the break.
Reserve Bridget Rothert tallied six LVC points during the decisive run, while Kiely Chaklos netted four. Senior Caitlin Bach placed an exclamation point on the burst with a jumper, 46 ticks before intermission.
“Experience counts,” said Goclowski. “Stevenson has had a terrific year, but they were in a new spot. It was the experienced players and team that came out on top tonight. I thought that was a huge difference.
“Caitlin Bach, who’s been there, having won three championships and trying to win her fourth, really stepped up and led us,” added Goclowski. “Kiely was also a great performer under pressure, and that experience means everything in the playoffs. ”
When Flying Dutchman Taylor Umbrell stroked a ‘J’ 2:25 into the second half, LVC’s halftime margin was intact, at 33-20. But Stevenson outscored Lebanon Valley 20-12 over the next nine minutes of play to pull within 45-40 of the lead.
LVC responded by notching the next five points, on a trey from Umbrell and a hard take by Chaklos, to push their advantage back to double figures, with 7:29 remaining. With the Flying Dutchmen cashing in on their free throw opportunities, the closest the Mustangs would come the rest of the way was 54-47 and 57-50.
“The game certainly was a microcosm of our season,” said Goclowski. “It had ups and downs. But the difference between the team now and a month or two ago is our ability to persevere through the low points.
“We did a great job of not allowing drives,” continued Goclowski. “We worked hard on keeping the ball in front of us. Defensively, we came out on plan and executed very well. We weathered the storm in the second-half, counter-punched well, and took advantage of opportunities to hold on for the win. In the second half, it was a little bit of fatigue. They (his players) gutted it out quite well.”
Bach and Chaklos both registered double-doubles. Chaklos went for 18 points and ten rebounds, while Bach pumped in 15 points and hauled in 11 caroms.
Three other Flying Dutchmen scorers – Umbrell, who had 13, Rothert, who canned 11, and Peyton Carper, who notched ten – joined them in double figures. Lebanon Valley converted 73 percent of its foul shots and outscored Stevenson 24-7 at the free throw line.
The Flying Dutchmen also out rebounded the Mustangs 48-31.
“No, we can still use it,” said Goclowski, of the word ‘soft’, which he at times has used to describe his troops this season. “We’re looking to make the most of the talents we have. We try to maximize our strengths and minimize our weaknesses.
“We’re more comfortable at home,” added Goclowski. “We always look to have our sixth man (the fans in the stands) behind us.”
Courtesy of two Chaklos drives, an Umbrell lay-in and a pair of charity tosses from Bach, Lebanon Valley assumed an early 8-2 lead. But the Mustangs tallied the next seven points to take a 9-8 edge, their only lead of the evening.
“Saturday is going to be a very exciting match-up,” said Goclowski. “LVC-Messiah games are always great battles and I expect Saturday will be another great chapter in that rivalry. It will be a great game. We have great respect for the team (Messiah) and the game.
“It’s great that LVC and Messiah are back in the championship game,” Goclowski added. “It always seems there’s a lot of energy surrounding that game. May the best team win.”