January 11 was not a good day for Emory basketball. The men’s team was mired in a two-game losing streak. After dropping their University Athletic Association (UAA) opener to the University of Rochester on the road, they fell to rival Washington University in St. Louis in a heartbreaker at home, 86-84. Their record stood at 8-4, 0-2 in conference, and their Division III NCAA Tournament chances looked slim.
“We didn’t play poorly either game,” Head Coach Jason Zimmerman said. “We knew there was a lot of basketball left but still had to get better.”
Zimmerman met with his star guard, junior Alex Greven, and the two discussed what the team had to do to improve.
“They were upset they weren’t discouraged,” Zimmerman said of his Eagles.
The women’s team, too, had just dropped a close game to Wash. U, a 56-53 overtime game. The loss evened their UAA record at 1-1 and knocked them out of the conference driver’s seat.
Flash to March, when both teams finished first in the UAA and earned NCAA Tournament bids.
Women’s Head Coach Christy Thomaskutty credits her team’s attitude as the key part of their title run.
“It came down to the Rochester game [a double-overtime, 73-67 win],” Thomaskutty said. “That’s when I knew our team was legit. At no point was there any sense of panic.”
The men’s team strung together five straight wins, each by double digits, putting themselves right back in the midst of the conference race. Perhaps even more impressive was the team’s five-game winning streak to close the season a clinch a share of the title, capped with a regular-season ending blowout of the Rochester squad that beat them in their conference opener.
“There’s no better feeling than accomplishing a goal,” Zimmerman said. “It wasn’t just one year. We’ve been close for the last couple years. It was as good a feeling as you can have as a coach.”
From there, the men qualified for the NCAA Tournament, where they trounced Randolph College (Va.) in the opening round before falling to Whitworth University (Wash.). Still, it was a record-breaking season for a team that had not been to the tournament since 1990 and, with a record of 20-7, earned its second-highest win total of all time. However, this success did not come out of nowhere.
“It was a six-year process,” Zimmerman said. “It started when I got here.”
The women’s team caught fire as well after the Wash. U loss. The Eagles relied on stingy defensive play and won seven straight games, not allowing more than 64 points in any of them. A four-game winning streak to close the season gave the team sole possession of first place in the UAA and a final conference record of 12-2.
The Eagles breezed by Whitworth and Huntingdon College (Ala.) in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament to reach the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 1997 and just the third time in program history. The run ended there, as they lost to Whitman College (Wash.) in a close 67-62 contest to close the season with a record of 24-4 and a national ranking of 14th.
“It was a game we thought we should win,” Thomaskutty said. “It was a disappointment. It took me a few weeks to get past that one, because this is such a great group of girls.”
Both teams’ tournament losses do nothing to take away from their record-breaking seasons that were as thrilling as they were successful.
“It’s hard for any coach to say it was a great season when it ends with a loss,” Thomaskutty said. “But it was one of the program’s best seasons ever.”
The men’s team relied heavily on its one-two punch of junior forward Jake Davis and senior guard Alex Greven. Davis led the Eagles with 18 points per game, while Greven was not far behind at 16.5.
The two stars led a powerful Emory offense that averaged 82 points per game and on average outscored opponents by more than 15 points.
Junior guard McPherson Moore and senior forward Michael Friedberg added 12.0 and 11.7 points per game, respectively. Friedberg led with 6.9 rebounds per game, while sophomore guard Michael Florin was tops in assists with 5.8 per game.
It was a happy ending for Greven and Friedberg, who alongside fellow seniors Ollie Carleton and Nash Oh qualified for the NCAA Tournament for the first time in their Eagles careers.
Zimmeran spoke highly of the success of his senior class, citing their 74-28 record in their Eagles careers.
“I was really excited for those guys,” he said. “It was a special journey. To be able to put up a banner in the gym, that’s something that no one can take away from them.
The women’s team relied more on their defense, averaging 71.2 points per game and holding opponents to just 55.1.
Junior guard Hannah Lilly led the team in scoring with 13 points per game, while junior guard Savannah Morgan and senior forward Misha Jackson contributed 11.9 and 11.1, respectively. Jackson led the Eagles in rebounds with 9.0 per game.
Along with Jackson, the team will be losing seniors Danielle Landry and Katie Dickerson, but Thomaskutty believes the future is bright.
“Anytime you’re relying on freshman, you’re cautiously optimistic,” she said. “It’s going to hinge on one thing, and that’s leadership.”
The men, too, will look to build off their success this season.
“I think we can be better,” Zimmerman said. “That’s the coach in me talking. We have to replace some great players and great leaders.”
If there’s one lesson that this season taught us, it’s to never count out the Emory basketball teams. The Eagles will be back and hungry to build off their success in 2013 – but no matter what, there’s no taking away from just how big of a season this was for both squads.
“The bar has been set really high,” Zimmerman said. “It’s exciting to see how high we can raise that bar.”
–By Ryan Smith