SCOTIA -- Rebounding. Defense. Attacking the basket and foul shots.
All of those things are part of an improved Mekeel Christian Academy basketball package, and the Lions used them to great extent to get out of Section II and into the state Class B final four this weekend in Binghamton.
Their performances against Schalmont and Canton were indicators of just how far this team has come since November when it began its first season as an independent, after years of domination in the Western Athletic Conference, but no sectional title since 2007.
As part of an effort to enhance its postseason prospects, Mekeel set up games with reigning Federation Class A champ Albany Academy, Watervliet, LaSalle, Green Tech and Saratoga Springs, as well as out-of-section teams Fieldston and Collegiate from New York City, and North Brunswick and Timothy Christian from New Jersey.
"The tough schedule, playing big schools and big successful programs, helped develop areas of our game that would not have been developed," Mekeel coach Chad Bowman said. "It's been great to see them evolve."
Mekeel had lost to Glens Falls in the 2017 Section II title game, lost to Hudson in the 2016 semifinals and bowed to Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk in the 2015 quarterfinals. Those setbacks came by a combined nine points.
"This is where we wanted to be the last three years," said Mekeel junior Dan McCarty, whose brother Matt excelled for the school's state final four Class C team in 2007. "It's finally our turn."
Mekeel (22-3) beat Schalmont 69-59 for the Section II title and got past Canton 53-47 in Saturday's regionals. The playoffs continue Friday at 6:45 p.m. in a state Class B semifinal against Briarcliff (Section I, 22-4) at Floyd L. Maines Arena with essentially the same lineup as last year, but as Bowman would say, a "more complete" one.
"We needed to do a self-assessment after so many games," Bowman said. "We needed to get better in certain areas. There's nothing like competing against good competition to make you aware of what you need to work on."
Albany Academy provided an eye-opener when it defeated Mekeel 76-54 five games into the season. Bowman said Mekeel was hot from outside early in that game, but tailed off and struggled to find other offensive options.
"You can learn from losses," McCarty said. "Those games were definitely good for us. They challenged us, and helped us grow as a team."
"Albany Academy put the hammer down on us," said Carter Stewart, a Binghamton-bound senior swingman. "That helped. We realized we had to change the way we played, that we'd be seeing a second defender in our games ahead, and that we had to create shots we didn't have to create before."
Mekeel had plenty of opportunities to learn, develop and hone at both ends of the court while traversing through its beefed-up schedule.
"We had become jump-shot heavy," Bowman said. "You need to score in transition and with twos, threes and free throws. If you get 15 in each column, you're going to be OK. We needed to develop that balance. The second shift was defense and rebounding. That became a very big focus for us."
Mekeel did not shoot well from the perimeter in either of its last two games, but had something extra in its back pocket. The storyline against Schalmont was 26 offensive rebounds, an effort led by Stewart and team newcomer Gideon Agbo, which set up the Lions for numerous second and third shots in a volume assault.
The Canton game was highlighted by a 19-7 fourth-quarter run when the Lions went 11-for-14 from the line, mixed in a couple of 3s, and Jordan Jackson and Stewart supplied the defensive spark. Canton managed two points over the final four minutes.
"It was great to see our team find multiple ways to win games," Bowman said. "You're always thinking, 'Can you find other ways? Do you have enough strengths?' Schalmont, we won with rebounding. Canton, in the second half it was defense, foul shooting and attacking the basket."
Stewart said the Lions were ready when Bowman called for a defensive switch late against Canton, when Stewart and Jackson successfully locked down two key scorers.
"Throughout the year, we didn't see the same style twice," Stewart said. "Our defense had a lot of practice with on-the-fly changes. If we didn't, we wouldn't have been able to execute so well."
Bowman said it's a plus having a variety of proven tools going into Friday's game against a Briarcliff team that has equal size, several capable scorers and a proven defense of its own. Briarclif beat Center Moriches 62-49 and Marlboro 57-51 in its regional games.
"Good teams take away what you want to do," Bowman said. "The more things you can do well, the better off you'll be. You never want to get to plan D, but at times you have to."