On Tuesday, Feb. 24, the Allegheny men’s basketball team ended their 11-15 season in the quarterfinals of the NCAC tournament against Wabash College. In a back-and-forth game, the Gators suffered a 69-60 loss in Crawfordsville, Indiana.
Evan Zabriski, ’17, the Gators’ season scoring leader at 16.2 points per game, led his team in points and rebounds with 20 and 10, respectively. While Zabriski achieved his third double-double of the season, the injury-ridden Gators fell behind in the rebound column pulling in only 26 boards to Wabash’s 39.
“Injuries hurt; not having Brandon Smith playing really hurt us, but there’s no time for excuses,” Zabriski said. “We failed to box out as a team and that’s what cost us.”
Team captain Josh Valentic, ’15, also spoke to the Gators’ loss on Tuesday.
“Rebounding was a glaring weak spot for us against the bigger, more physical Wabash team, but we battled hard to the last whistle,” said Valentic.
Despite the loss, the Gators’ 11-15 record was a substantial improvement from last year’s 6-19 season, and their eight conference wins was a considerable improvement from only three the year before.
“We all bought into the idea of getting better each day,” Valentic said. “One of the hardest things to do in sports is changing a losing culture to a winning one and we accomplished that this year by winning 8 conference games.”
“I think the difference between this year and other years is that we started to win close games,” added head coach, Jim Driggs. “That is a testament to our team. We did a better job of accepting roles and a lot different guys made big plays for us throughout the season.”
Valentic was one of those guys. The captain’s season average of 15 points per game and a shooting percentage of 43 percent certainly speak for themselves, but his leadership of a developing men’s basketball team will be even tougher to replace.
According to Zabriski, not only is Josh a great individual player, but he’s also a great leader and not having him next year is definitely going to hurt us.
“Gabe and Leslie are also going to be very tough to replace. They are great players and I’m truly going to miss playing with them every day,” Zabriski said.
“Josh had a great year,” offered Driggs, continuing the praise of this years senior class. “He was one of the guys that made big plays for us all year. He was also our best defender. Gabe played a crucial role all season. I give Gabe a lot of credit because he battled injuries this year and throughout his career but he always hung tough. Leslie was a great addition. He helped our post players get better and he got a lot better too.”
Though the Gators’ successful season has come to an end, Driggs suggests that their eyes are still looking forward, and that there are still improvements to be made.
“We want to keep getting better,” said Driggs. “Our goal will be to get better individually this off season with the understanding that getting better ultimately helps us collectively. Our guys can’t stay the same. I think if we do work this offseason it will pay off next year.”
Zabriski expressed a similar outlook on the future, setting his sights for further success.
“No matter how much I have improved from this past season, there is always something I can work on. This is a big offseason for me and I have a lot to work on in order to keep growing as a player,” said Zabriski.
As the Gators continue to move forward in improving a developing program around younger stand outs such as Zabriski, they will have to account for the losses of seniors like Valentic. Valentic’s impression on his teammates will likely last – his skills on the court and his leadership off the court still infecting and inspiring those who learned from it.
“Being around the guys every day is something that you only get in a team environment, and it will definitely be missed,” Valentic said. “I wish all the seniors continued success in their career endeavors and for the underclassmen success on the hardwood next year and for years to come.”