BY Jim Fenton
The final regular-season home game on the Stonehill College women's basketball schedule features a special matchup.
Undefeated Bentley University, ranked No. 1 in the national Div. 2 poll, will visit Merkert Gym on Saturday at 1:30 p.m. in a renewal of its rivalry with the 14th-ranked Skyhawks.
"It's perfect,'' said Stonehill coach Trisha Brown, whose team is 21-3 with two games to go. "It'll be a playoff atmosphere. There's been a lot of hype on campus, always for the Bentley-Stonehill game, but I think given our records and we are 1-2 in the (Northeast-10 Conference), I think it's more exciting.
"Just because it's always such a great rivalry, I just think it's the perfect setup for a game at this point in the year with Bentley coming in undefeated and we're playing really well right now.
"It's going to be just a great atmosphere in the gym, so I think it's really exciting for the kids.''
Stonehill, picked in the preseason coaches poll to finish eighth in the NE-10, has secured second place in the conference with a 17-3 record, giving the Skyhawks a first-round bye in the tournament. Stonehill is ranked No. 2 in the East Region behind the Falcons.
Bentley, which went to the national semifinal round a year ago, is 24-0 and 20-0 in the NE-10, leaving the Falcons two wins away from a perfect regular season. The last time Bentley went undefeated in the regular season was 1991-92, and it was 31-0 before losing in the national semifinal round.
Stonehill, which will open the conference tourney at home on March 3, could gain a large shot of momentum with a victory over Bentley.
"It would be great for our confidence, great going into the playoffs, doing it in a great game environment,'' said Brown, whose team is 13-0 at home. "That would obviously mean a lot to our kids.''
The Falcons, who have won the NE-10 regular-season title for a third straight year, have plenty of depth and experience.
Junior All-America forward Lauren Battista of Easton, who returns to her hometown, is among the leaders. She is averaging 14 points on 49 percent shooting, 6.7 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.5 steals.
"They've certainly had some talented teams and players (in the past), but I think their depth on this team is really impressive,'' said Brown. "Their junior class has been such a strong class since their freshman year and they've added some really important pieces around them.
"What makes them so strong is they're bringing kids off the bench and they don't lose a step as they go deep into their bench.''
Bentley raced out to a 49-11 halftime lead against Stonehill on Dec.8 in Waltham, using a 30-0 run over a span of nearly 15 minutes to take control. The Skyhawks chopped into that deficit in the second half before losing, 66-50.
"It was early in our season and I don't think we were ready to compete and that certainly showed in the first half,'' said Brown. "The great part of that game was how our kids responded and came out and played really well in the second half.''
Stonehill has improved with each passing week this season, losing only to American International College and Franklin Pierce University since that defeat at Bentley.
"That's been one of the best parts of this year,'' said Brown. "We knew we were going to be better and we certainly started the year off better than last year, but what we've loved is just seeing the kids continue to work hard and every kid on this team has gotten better over the last two or three months.''
Staff writer Jim Fenton's Colleges appears Wednesday and Friday in The Enterprise. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.