NORTH ADAMS -- In order to bounce back from a rough patch, you often need to hit rock bottom. That's exactly what happened for the MCLA men's basketball team.
The Trailblazers had lost both games in a New York City tournament before dropping a road tilt at Sage, giving MCLA it's second three-game losing streak of the season. It was staring at a 3-9 record with conference play was set to begin in less than a week. Something needed to change.
"We just had pretty bad showings," senior Vernon Cross said. "We had a group meeting, went over to [John Jones'] house. We decided enough's enough and we need to start playing as a team."
It's not easy for a team to pull a 180 midseason, but through the first half of the conference schedule that's precisely what MCLA has done.
The Trailblazers have rattled off five straight wins -- all in conference -- and are sitting atop the MASCAC standings with a two game cushion.
"What we've really been doing is stepping up on defense and really going over what our defensive assignments are," Jones said of the turnaround.
In the five conference games, MCLA hasn't allowed more than 72 points, which it did in 10 of the first 12 games. Opponents are averaging just 62 points. Second-placed Westfield State (3-2) scored just 43.
Much of that can be attributed to a change in the defensive scheme from a year ago.
"[We're] playing more half-court defense," coach Jamie Morrison said. "That's been the difference, defense and rebounding and buying into what we need to do. ... We're holding teams to 30, sometimes 25 percent from the field and that's been the key."
Framingham's 46 percent shooting night was the best against MCLA since the streak began, and Westfield's 20.5 was the worst.
Regardless of how well the opponents have been shooting, MCLA is believing in itself to pull out wins late, which it's done in four of the five games. The average margin of victory for MCLA during the streak is just 7.5 points. Toss out the 20-point win over Westfield and that drops to 4.5.
In the games against Worcester, Framingham and Fitchburg, MCLA trailed by as many as three points with 2:48 to play. For a program that lost those games in the past, it's big turnaround.
Morrison is seeing the difference in his players' faces during late time outs,
"They're not panicking. ... They're confident in their ability, they're confident in the game plan," he said. "They believe in themselves and their teammates and that somebody's going to make a play.
"When the game's tight like that and it's close, one possession game, I think they feel like they're going to win the game. I think these guys are mentally tough, that's the biggest thing."
He knows the offense can still be more efficient, but the one aspect the team needs to address is it's free-throw shooting. MCLA is shooting just 55.75 percent from the line in the last two games. It's converting 63.9 for the season.
"We shoot a lot of free throws in practice, but I just think it's a lack of focus. We just got to be mentally tough, focus, concentration at the line," senior Bilal Shabazz said. "We pulled out a good win [Saturday], but if we continue to shoot poorly from the free-throw line, then some games we might not win."
With the top spot in the standings comes a lot of pressure and a bull's-eye.
"In the beginning of the season, they had us ranked fifth. So I think now, we've gained a little bit more respect in the league," Shabazz said. "So when teams come to play us, they're giving us their best game. We got to be able to take their best punch and we got to try to create runs."