Bethlehem basketball coach A.G. Irons is hoping the team he puts out on the Shaker court tonight isn’t the same one that will begin sectional play in less than a month.
“We try to get better every day. We’re a lot better than we were early in the season, and we want to keep moving in that direction,” Irons said. “It’s something we talk about all the time. What do we need to fix? It’s getting down to the nitpicky. We’re not letting anything go.”
The Eagles are in a pretty good groove right now. A string of four straight wins has enhanced their bid for the Suburban Council South Division championship, boosted them to No. 16 in the state Class AA rankings and taken away some of the sting from a 61-58 loss at Shenendehowa just after the Christmas break.
Some of the sting, though, is still there.
“That left a sour taste in our mouth,” Irons said. “It’s motivation for us. We don’t want to experience that again. I told the guys afterward, ‘Remember what this feels like.’ ”
Bethlehem is digging in for the stretch run, honing the things that have worked and adding new things to its offensive and defensive repertoire.
“We’re trying to do different things that will make us harder to play,” Irons said.
Shaker coach Jeff Holmes knows just how difficult Bethlehem (9-1, 11-1) can be. The Eagles’ seven-game winning streak to begin the season was capped by a sweep of state-ranked Middletown (72-65 in overtime) and Christian Brothers Academy (66-55) at the CBA holiday tournament.
“They’re a well-coached team with guys who can score. They shoot the ball and defend,” Holmes said. “I saw them against Middletown, and they were very impressive. They were in foul trouble, and they overcame that. The next night, they beat CBA. That’s an impressive resume.”
Shaker (8-2, 10-2), the North Division leader, and Bethlehem will both be looking to pad their resumes in one of this weekend’s many games that will benefit the Coaches vs. Cancer program.
“It’s an important game, in terms of the division races and for the overall sectional seeding, and there’s the pride factor,” said
Holmes. “This is a big game for us, and it’s big for them, too. I know my kids are excited about it.”
“When we looked at the calender back in November, we thought this could be for the league championship,” said Irons, whose starting cast includes Nathan Kane, Myles Bergere, Connor Morelli, Matt McKenna and 6-foot-7 10th-grader John Sica. “Our guys have been working toward this game. They want this game, but we know it’s not an end-all, either. There’s too many games and too many good teams still out there.”
Shaker will be trying to bounce back from last Friday’s 58-49 loss against Colonie.
“We ran into a very determined team the other night. They beat us to a lot of balls and played great,” said Holmes. “That’s two points we lost because it was out of the division. Losing to Guilderland also cost us two points. This is another two-point game, and we can’t afford to lose those points.”
Colonie outscored Shaker in the middle quarters, 32-14, en route to its surprise victory. While point guard Zach Yakel led the Blue Bison with 14 points, their frontcourt trio of David Morrison, Chris Landers and Malik Dare combined for only 19.
“We got off to a decent start, and then we struggled,” said Holmes. “We have to find ways to get shots. Colonie took us out of that.”
Shaker will be facing a Bethlehem team that has increased its defensive focus since the loss at Shenendehowa, when the Plainsmen went on an 18-9 third-quarter run and began the fourth period with a 10-3 push.
“We talked at length about accountability after the Shenendehowa game, understanding who can do damage, who can score and how they can score to hurt us,” Irons said. “I think it’s improved.”
Bethlehem held Mohonasen and Niskayuna in the 40s and kept Saratoga Springs and Columbia in the 50s after the Shenendehowa game, and nudged a little closer to the 13-win mark it achieved in each the last two seasons and is striving to surpass.
Irons was particularly pleased with his team’s defensive grit in the Columbia game. After the Eagles surrendered 26 first-quarter points, they limited the Blue Devils to 13, 10 and nine in the next three periods in a 63-58 triumph.
“We were down, 11-0 or 12-0, to start the game, and we got ourselves back in it,” said Irons. “I called a time out, we got things in order at the defensive end, and we chipped away.”
Bethlehem turned in another defensive gem last Friday and got 16 points from Sica in a 76-49 win over Niskayuna. Three others scored 13 points, including reserve Jason Clas.
Shaker avoided an upset by slipping past Niskayuna, 59-57, before the Colonie setback.
“Part of us is thinking we can catch them when they’re down. Another part of us is thinking they are a heck of a team and they’re
going to be hungry,” said Irons. “But we’re hungry, too. We know what it’s like to be bottom-feeders. We were there not too long ago.”
Unbeaten girls’ teams will collide at Bethlehem tonight when the Lady Eagles (10-0, 12-0) host Shaker (10-0, 12-0). Bethlehem, with standout sophomore Gabby Giacone, is ranked No. 3 in the state sportswriter’s Class AA poll. Shaker, with star senior Madison Rowland, is ranked No. 15.