Five years ago, Misericordia basketball reigned atop the Freedom Conference.
In 2011-12, both the men’s and women’s teams won the league’s tournament to claim their first NCAA berths in the history of their programs.
They’ve been on different paths since then, but the Cougars squads will have a chance to repeat the feat as they open Freedom Conference tournament play on Wednesday night. The second-seeded women will host No. 3 DeSales at 7 p.m. at the Anderson Center while the men, seeded third, head to the road against No. 2 Eastern at 7:30 p.m.
The other men’s semifinal pits Delaware Valley against DeSales while the FDU-Florham women take on Eastern. Both championships will be held Saturday, with the higher seed hosting each game.
For the Misericordia men, this is the eighth straight trip to the playoffs in the school’s ninth season in the league. But it will be the first one for the women since February 2012.
It comes in the first year under coach Jason Rhine, a Pennsylvania native who has already led the team to 18 wins — one more than that NCAA squad and three shy of the program record.
Not bad for a team that was picked to finish next-to-last in the conference by fellow coaches back in October.
“Our kids are all about proving themselves,” Rhine said after the Cougars punched their ticket with a win over King’s. “We were picked seventh in the preseason. We just want to prove ourselves day-in and day-out. And they bring it to practice, too.”
Rhine said that seventh-place prediction served as motivation for himself as well as the players.
But he did say he understood why it happened — the Cougars had won just eight games total over the past two seasons and this is his first year at the helm of a program.
“I told our players that I’m out to prove myself, too,” Rhine said. “I’m a first-time head coach. I want to prove to people that I can do this. I want to prove to our administration here that I was the right guy for the job. And they need to prove that they’re the right players for this program.”
They’ve certainly done that, earning wins over league favorites FDU-Florham and DeSales in the past month to claim homecourt advantage in the semifinals, edging DeSales on a tiebreaker.
Both meetings between the teams were grind-it-out affairs, each won by the road team. DeSales clawed out a 44-41 win at the Anderson Center and Misericordia needed overtime to beat the Bulldogs 59-52 in Center Valley last week. DeSales shot just 24 percent from the floor in both games.
One thing the Bulldogs do have on their side is postseason experience. DeSales has set a standard for consistency, having never missed the Freedom Conference tournament since joining the league, qualifying for a 20th straight year. Fred Richter is in his 28th season as coach and topped 500 career wins earlier this season.
On the men’s side, it’s Eastern that is coming off of a postseason hiatus. The Eagles are still looking for their first tournament win since joining the conference.
It will be a matchup of arguably the two best players in the league in Misericordia’s Jason Kenny and Eastern’s Shaquan Turk, who finished first and second, respectively, in regular season scoring.
After stumbling at the start of the month, Misericordia rebounded to win four straight to close out the schedule.
“It’s about getting hot at the right time,” Cougars coach Willie Chandler said after closing out the home slate. “I think we’re starting to get there. We’re hitting shots. Defensively, we’re getting a little better, I thought.
“When it’s time to play defense, we can. I tell the guys, ‘Let’s do that all the time. Don’t just do it when we need a stop. Do it all the time.’ We’re starting to get it a little bit.”
Misericordia dropped both meetings with the Eagles this season, including a wild 112-107 affair in overtime on the road last month, a game the Cougars couldn’t close out in the second half.
They played that game without Kenny and senior center James Hawk, but both were available for the rematch three weeks ago when Eastern controlled play in an 87-64 decision in Dallas.
But it’s a new season now.
“I’m happy,” Chandler said. “We’re in — that’s all that matters. We’re ready to make some noise now.”