Elijah Boyd (above) is one of two seniors on an undefeated Widener squad. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Each year that Elijah Boyd and Connor Laverty have been at Widener, there’s been a similar theme to the way their seasons have gone: a shaky start, with a finish that was strong, but not strong enough.
Their freshman season, in 2016-17, the Pride opened 7-8, then won nine of their last 10 games to make it to the MAC-Commonwealth semifinals, where they lost by 18 at home to Albright. The next year, after a 3-5 start, and losing four straight in January, they closed with wins in seven of eight, then won the ECAC championship after missing out on their conference playoffs.
Last year, Widener was 7-9 on Jan. 16, then won seven of nine to get into the Commonwealth playoffs. They got tantalizingly close to the promised land, beating Hood on the road in the semifinals. But Arcadia ran away in the league championship game, leaving the Pride one game shy of March Madness.
“All four teams I’ve been on at Widener have had a realistic chance, or just been good enough to win (the conference),” Laverty said. “It stings that the past three years, we could have been there.”
Things seem to be different in Chester this year.
The Pride are undefeated through their first nine games, off to their best start since the 2005-06 squad started 12-0. Widener’s still got a ways to go in the hunt for its first NCAA Tournament berth since hosting a game in 2009, but head coach Chris Carideo couldn’t ask for much more through the opening four weeks of the season.
“I like the edge that this team is coming in with,” said Carideo, who’s in his 13th season at the school where he also starred in the mid-1990s, earning All-American honors in 1995-96 as a senior. “I thought we could have a different group, I think there was a lot more balance with our team this year than there’s been in years past, and I think we had talent in positions that I thought could complement each other.”
Widener’s eighth win of the season, a 30-point drubbing of Lebanon Valley to open MAC Commonwealth play on Dec. 4, saw the Pride dish out 18 assists on 31 baskets, shoot 47.7% overall and 41.9% from deep, and force 20 turnovers. It was a confident performance from a team that moved the ball well, played aggressive defense –– Widener held Lebanon Valley to under 40% overall and just 3-of-16 (18.8%) from 3-point range –– and continually extended a 13-point halftime gap over the course of the last 20 minutes.
“We’ve got six, seven guys that can score the ball and we love sharing the ball, we love passing the ball,” Boyd said. “And you can tell in practice, we share the ball like crazy.”
Connor Laverty (above) is hitting more than 46% of his 3-point attempts on the season. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
It’s a remarkably balanced scoring load. All five of the team’s starters are in double figures: Boyd and Kenny Lewis at 12.7 ppg, with Jared Peters (12.2), Laverty (11.6 ppg) and Pat Holden right behind them. All five have led the team in scoring at some point through their first nine games, as has reserve A.J. Sawyers.
In going 9-0 (2-0 MAC Commonwealth), the Pride are outscoring their opponents by 15.8 ppg. They’ve been holding opponents to 37.5% from the floor and 27.7% from deep, with a +4.3 margin on the glass.
“This is the best defensive team I’ve had, total defense,” Carideo said. “No matter what we do, if it’s man or zone, full-court or half-court, we’re pretty talented defensively.
“I give them a lot of freedom in the open floor…as long as they’re doing it defensively.”
It starts at the top, with two seniors who have meant a lot to Carideo and his program over the last four years. Two of the three freshmen on the team back in 2016-17, they were the only two sophomores a year later, when they both made the jump from averaging about 13-14 minutes off the bench to full-time (Boyd) or part-time (Laverty) status in the starting lineup, each seeing their minutes double from the year before.
Boyd, a 6-3 wing forward out of St. John's Catholic (Md.), is a rugged inside-out scorer who can take advantage of mismatches. Laverty, a 6-5 wing out of Ocean City (N.J.), is the team's second-leading rebounder (6.1/game) and also has a team-high 20 3-pointers while hitting at better than a 46% clip from deep.
At this point, they’ve played in a combined 170 games and scored a combined 1,500 points, with 670 rebounds and 272 assists. They’ve also done a good bit of winning, now 56-32 (.636) nine games into their senior season.
“It’s really been me and him, we’ve been through everything together,” Laverty said. “All four years we’ve been here, we felt like we could have won the conference championship, every single year. And I think the losses we’ve taken, with the wins, have definitely helped Elijah and I grow closer...he’s definitely my best friend.”
“Our connection’s very strong, he’s helped me with a lot of personal things, just helping me grow as a person,” Boyd said. “We just love playing together, we love sharing the ball with each other, sharing the ball in general, that’s what we do; even if we’re not scoring the ball, we’re leading our team, and that’s what Coach wants from us.”
While Boyd and Laverty provide the senior leadership, this is by no means an old team. Peters is a junior, while Lewis and Holden are sophomores who represent the future of the program. Twelve of the 16 players on the roster are freshmen and sophomores, including all the key reserves.
“We have some youth that I’m excited about,” Carideo said after the win over Lebanon Valley. “I’m excited about that, but that’ll be next year. We’ve got youth that are playing, and that’s great, and we have some guys who aren’t playing much that we’re high on. So yeah, I’m excited for what we have now, and what we have moving forward.
“We’re hoping that now we’re a legit championship contender and that we can keep it going here for another few years. That’s what the goal always is, but sometimes it’s just not that easy.”
Making the NCAA tournament as an at-large is much more difficult in Division III, with more than 40 different conferences sponsoring basketball leaving much less room for at-large candidates. The Pride know that as well as their season goes, it almost certainly will come down to a couple games in late February for the conference title, if the Pride want to go dancing for the first time in a decade.
“That’s always been the goal, since I was being recruited here,” Laverty said. “That was the goal, that was preached to me when I got on campus, they said we don’t want to have winning seasons, we want to win the conference, we want to go to the NCAA Tournament, that’s always been the goal.”
They’ve got one shot left to make it happen. But after coming so close the last few years, this Widener squad might have more motivation than anybody around.