The 2014-15 Geneseo women's basketball team finished with a 25-5 record, including the program's fifth SUNYAC Championship and second bid to the NCAA Tournament in the last five years. Advancing to the "Sweet 16" for the first time in 20 seasons following an 18-game winning streak that was the second-longest in program history, the Knights were ranked No. 19 in the final national poll of the season. Below, SUNYAC Coach of the Year Scott Hemer answers some questions about the season and what it took to achieve such lofty success.
1. What did you say to the team of the first day of practice this year about the type of season you thought you might have?
Before we started our first practice of the season, we had each player standing in a circle, pinning a paper target to the back of their teammate's practice jersey who was directly in front of them. Right from the beginning, we discussed having a target on our backs. Last year, we lost a close battle in the SUNYAC Championship game and did so without having any seniors on our roster. This year, with everyone back, we understood that the rest of the conference would be circling our games on their schedules. Instead of pretending that wasn't the case, we embraced it and chose to have fun with the pressure.
2. You routinely play up to 10 players during games. Talk about the philosophy behind that strategy and how your players buy into it successfully.
Our primary goal is to keep the five players in the game as fresh as possible throughout the contest. Many games are won or lost in the last few minutes pending on how much fuel is left in the tank. With that said, it makes it that much easier when you have enough talent to be able to maintain a high level of play when going deep into your bench and this year's roster allowed us to do that successfully. You have to give our players credit for trusting each other enough to pull it off. Many of the players coming off our bench could be starters at other colleges yet embrace their role here at Geneseo. The quality of education and winning culture that has been created here by former players ultimately is what gives us an opportunity to get that many talented players to join us in the first place.
3. How did the win on the road over Cortland play a role in the team success this season? What did you say to the team at halftime to come back from a 19-point deficit?
We learned a lot about ourselves that night in Cortland. Tuesday night road games are always challenging for our student-athletes and facing our archrivals certainly didn't make it any easier. The team was flat right from the beginning and we dug quite a hole because of our disappointing effort. At one point during the first half, I called a timeout and said to my players, "Maybe I wasn't perfectly clear with the game plan because I have absolutely no idea what you're doing out there right now," (and that is an abbreviated version). The team looked at me with stone faces, but the Cortland fans behind the bench had a good laugh at our expense. At halftime, I told them that they had let everyone in that locker room down during the first half. I said that they had likely fallen too far behind to win (I didn't believe that, but wanted to challenge them) and that they had a choice to make. They could go back out feeling sorry for themselves and get ready for a long ride home, or they could work their tails off and trust each other for 20 minutes to dig themselves out. Our veterans showed a tremendous amount of poise in the second half, especially when the game got close, as well as in overtime, and it was a lot of fun to watch. When looking back at it all, that game was the turning point. That was when they truly started to believe that they deserved to have that target on their backs and that they really were the best team in the SUNYAC.
4. Talk about the 18-game winning streak and what was behind stringing together the second longest streak in program history?
Back in 2010-11, our team strung together 15 wins in a row and I saw a lot of similarities between them and this year's squad. Strong leadership from within the team as well as having a balanced scoring attack was the foundation for both streaks. The one big difference for this group was that we had great depth and everyone knew their role and was committed to it. We suffered some critical injuries during January and we were fortunate to have enough people with talent who could step in and keep us moving forward. The consistent success was invigorating, but it was watching their unselfishness and the pride that they had for each other that I will remember most about this team and their win streak. At one point late in the season, I was trying to find ways to continue to motivate them during the home stretch of conference play. During a meeting with our captains, we were discussing the current mentality of the team and I was sharing my fears with them. All four captains looked at me, collectively and said, "Don't worry Coach. We aren't going to lose another conference game this year. We guarantee it." Having leadership like that makes head coaches look smart and is where record-setting win streaks originate.
5. What was it like being awarded two NCAA Tournament home games and what role did playing in Schrader Gymnasium have on advancing with two victories?
To be honest, there is nothing better than watching your players take their home court during the NCAA Tournament. Schrader Gym was packed and the energy level from the crowd was electric. Seeing all of those people from the community, faculty, staff, the student body, and so many student-athletes from other teams in attendance with signs, painted faces and even those big, over-sized heads of our players you often see at games (thanks to our Field Hockey team by the way). Those are the special memories that those young ladies will NEVER forget. It is also the exact recipe for propelling a nervous team to survive and advance while facing both mental and physical exhaustion from a long season as well as the stress of mid-term exams.
6. What was the team's mentality going into the Sweet 16 game opposite the defending national champion?
I would be lying if I told you they weren't nervous. We had specifically targeted our season opener against Whitman College (last year's National runner-up) back on November 15th to have the experience of facing a team with that level of success. Having won that game, 64-52, I tried to convince them that they had already beaten a team of that caliber and they were prepared to be here. It was difficult watching FDU-Florham come out and shoot better than they had all season during the first half, which ultimately rattled our team. Our defense was actually playing quite well but as I told our players, sometimes in life there are things you simply cannot control and what we faced in that half was one of them.
7. After getting down early to FDU-Florham, your team rallied in the second half. What drove the turnaround?
When the coaches entered the locker room, the mood was glum. Our opponent seemed to make everything they threw at the rim for 20 minutes and we hadn't responded on the offensive end. Our captains tried to brighten everyone's spirits but it was a challenge for them. The underclassmen were frustrated and it showed. I tried to mentally take them back to halftime at Cortland, where we faced a similar deficit and had a comparable mindset, to get them to understand what we were up against and what we had proven we're made of. Again, I said that they had a choice to make and that whatever they chose would play a big part of this group's legacy. I pleaded with them to cut into the deficit by six points every media timeout (four-minute intervals) but that it would take a collective commitment from them to pull it off. When they took the floor for the second half, the ladies were playing with nothing to lose and it showed. Down at halftime, 48-20, they clawed their way to 53-31 at the 16:00 mark, cutting the deficit by six points, just like we had talked about. At 12:00, the team had cut another six points, 53-37. With just under five minutes to play with us trailing, 60-50, junior guard Dana Cohan rimmed out a three-point attempt that may just have been enough to completely swing the momentum. Unfortunately, we ran out of time and the run came to an end. In the locker room after the game, despite the disappointment, I made sure they understood that this defeat would not define them because of the character they had displayed as a group in that second half. In the end, our ladies were proud of how they represented the SUNYAC and Geneseo. And they should have been.
8. Ranked 19th in the final national poll to end the season, how will this year's success pay dividends moving forward?
When that group back in 2011 won the SUNYAC Championship with a 26-4 record, I told them that they had changed a culture. They had made winning an expectation. The returning players realized that the bar had been raised and it would require a ridiculous amount of work from both them and the coaching staff to continue the tradition we had started. That success allowed for us to bring in this current group of seniors who combined for an 82-29 record over their four-year careers including three SUNYAC Championship game appearances, ultimately winning one this season. Now, that bar has been raised even higher. We all realize that winning cannot be a sometime thing; rather, an every time thing. Our goal for the program has always been not just to win, but to annually compete for championships. Hopefully being ranked nationally for the first time in 20 years will motivate some of the best and brightest recruits to join us in our journey moving forward and ultimately towards meeting that goal.