The good vibes began a week ago for the Misericordia men’s basketball team.
Gearing up for the critical final week of the regular season, the Cougars would need one win just to clinch a spot in the postseason and two to earn that all-important home game.
“I felt good going into practice that Monday that things were going in the right direction,” coach Trevor Woodruff said after the week was over. “And the guys, they were terrific. We had two great days of preparation. They did everything we asked.”
It added up to decisive wins over King’s and Manhattanville, the latter coming Saturday night on the longest road trip on the league schedule.
As a reward, the second-seeded Cougars get to host tonight’s Freedom Conference semifinal against No. 3 FDU-Florham. Tip time is 7 p.m. at the Anderson Center.
After missing the postseason in their first season as a member of the league, the Cougars have now rattled off five straight appearances in the Freedom tournament. They are 3-3 in those playoff games, including a championship win in 2012.
Misericordia started that title run with a semifinal win against FDU-Florham before beating Wilkes and claiming the program’s first trip to the NCAA tournament.
The Devils didn’t make it easy two years ago, leading by eight in the second half before Misericordia pulled out a three-point win. And they’re not likely to make it easy tonight.
FDU-Florham is one of just two teams to beat the Cougars in Dallas this season, winning there 70-60 as recently as Feb. 1. Misericordia split the season series with a 59-57 victory on the road back in January.
“It’s a tough matchup,” Woodruff said. “They match up with us really well. It’s a veteran team. They start four seniors who have been there for awhile and played in playoff games before.
“They’re big and physical and they’ve got good balance. They can pound it inside, they can shoot the three and they’re capable of making plays off the bounce.”
Misericordia’s success has stemmed from its stingy defense, which ranked tops in the conference during the regular season.
There was no better example than Saturday’s finale in which the Cougars held host Manhattanville to just 15 second-half points in a 67-41 win.
On offense, senior guard Matt Greene and junior forward Steve Ware have done most of the heavy lifting. What has often pushed the Cougars over the top is a strong performance from a third cog such as guard Joe Busacca.
Last time out, it was freshman forward Erik Kerns filling that role nicely, finishing with 11 points and a team-high eight rebounds in the win.
“Matt and Steve continue to be the focal point for us, but when somebody does step up, we’ve got a good chance to win,” Woodruff said.
FDU, meanwhile, has four players who averaged double-figures in scoring during the regular season, led by senior guard John Flete (16.2 ppg).
The Devils’ forte has been forcing mistakes, as they lead the conference in turnover margin. Misericordia turned it over 33 times in their previous two meetings with FDU.
Woodruff in particular wasn’t happy with his team’s energy level in the home loss to FDU this month and believes the players learned a lesson from what was a shaky second half to that game.
“I hope so,” Woodruff said. “This time of year, if you’re not able to focus, if you’re not able to create energy for yourself, if you need some external force to get you excited — it’s not going to go too well.
“But we’re excited. We’re very focused. And we’re happy to be at home.”