NORTH ADAMS -- The old adage about beating a team three times in one season will be put to the test tonight.
The MCLA men's basketball team has already dispatched Salem State twice this season. Neither game had as much riding on the outcome as today's 7 p.m. tip.
"Obviously it's one of the biggest games we're going to play all year," junior Ramon Viches said before Wednesday's practice. "But you can't go in looking too far ahead."
The No. 2 Trailblazers play host to the No. 3 Vikings in Amsler Campus Center Gymnasium with the winner advancing to the MASCAC championship.
Salem has done well in the postseason in recent years. The Vikings are the defending conference champions and have been in three of the last four finals. MCLA lost to Salem in the semifinals last year and to Bridgewater the year before. The Trailblazers haven't been past this round in coach Jamie Morrison's tenure.
"These guys have a championship pedigree ... Salem's the defending champ, and in my eyes, until somebody knocks them off, they're champions," Morrison said. "I think that experience helps them. I think being there from a coaching standpoint helps them."
But this year isn't like those in the past. MCLA finally has the home-court advantage that comes with being the higher seed. They also didn't have to play Tuesday. More importantly, they believe in themselves as a team.
"I feel we're more as a team, the chemistry is a lot better," Viches said. "Last year, we definitely had the talent, but we weren't fully gelled yet."
As for their history this year, MCLA beat Salem at home by five in early January. The conference-opening win spurred the Trailblazers to five straight wins and eight in nine games. The teams' second matchup came near the end of that run in Salem.
John Jones' 16 points in the first meeting led the way for MCLA, who stretched its lead to as many as 11 in the second half. Paul Maurice had 20 for the Trailblazers in the second matchup, which also saw MCLA lead by as many as 11.
"I don't see a blowout happening," Viches said. "It's just going to be who executes better is going to win."
In a close game, free throws will be a focal point more than they typically are.
MCLA likes to use the dribble-drive with Jones and Bilal Shabazz, which puts them at the line a lot. Jones' 7.4 free throws attempted per game rank most in the league. Shabazz is 12th with 4.3.
MCLA was the most fouled team in the conference, attempting 324 free throws. It made just 199, good for a 61.4 percentage and last place. Salem was the second-most fouled team, attempting 274. The Vikings made better use of their free opportunities, making 72.3 percent, tops in the conference.
"We are a very aggressive team, and that's probably where our foul troubles comes from because we're very aggressive," Jones said. "We don't want them to get too relaxed. So most of all, we want to stay aggressive. We just got to stay disciplined, move our feet and not just keep reaching."
Game of the Week
Who: Salem at MCLA men's basketball
What: MASCAC semifinal
Where:MCLA's Amsler Campus Center Gym
When: Tonight, 7 p.m.
Coverage:Live-blog and post-game interviews at blogs.thetranscript.com/sports/