Senior point guard Katie Occhipinti stepped to the line with just over a minute left to go in the game against Kean University, knowing that each successful shot she made would expand the cushion between the College and the No. 22-ranked Cougars.
Occhipinti sunk each of her foul shots, which were just two of eight free throws the College converted in the last 62 seconds of regulation to assure a 65-55 victory.
“We are a strong free throw shooting team, and I was confident that we could get makes to seal the victory,” head coach Dawn Henderson said. “In a game like that, you just want to give yourself the opportunity to win and the team, through the bulk of the game, did just that.”
The Lions clinched the win in the last minute, but their ascent to victory started with plenty of adversity and a seven-point deficit in the first half.
The Cougars made the first basket of the contest right out of the gate and held onto a 13-6 lead until the College started to battle back.
The Lions played air-tight defense, slowly chipping away at Kean’s lead until they finally pushed ahead, 14-13. With 8:15 left in the first half, sophomore forward/center Liz West forced a turnover and eventually found Occhipinti in the paint for a layup.
“All season we have been able to battle back and have shown a ‘never give up’ type of perseverance,” Occhipinti said. “We know Kean well, and if you give them a big enough lead it’s hard to come back from that. We knew we had to battle the whole time no matter what the score was.”
While the first half was an uphill battle, the Lions earned the luxury of controlling the tempo of the second half by jumping out to a five-point lead in the first two minutes. However, the Cougars were hardly finished and started clawing their way to a comeback of their own.
Kean was able to pull within two points or less five times in the second half — even coming within a point of the Lions with 5:12 left to go — before Occhipinti stepped to the line with 1:02 left in the contest.
The Lions did not shutter at the Cougars’ bids to take back the lead though. Occhipinti’s two foul shots were followed by senior guard Jessica Imhof, who sank two pairs of free throws, and senior guard/forward Hannah Tait, who made a duo of her own.
“This team has great character,” Henderson said. “They have exhibited gritty determination from the beginning. We have a group of fighters who have great chemistry and will fight until the end for each other. I am extremely proud of them.”
The fashion of the victory was fitting as the Lions overcame the Cougars on Senior Night, where Occhipinti, Imhof, Tait and fifth-year senior Kelsey Kutch were honored by the home crowd before the game.
The quartet was crucial in the upset, with Imhof leading the team with 15 points and Tait and Kutch chipping in 10 points each. Occhipinti was a factor as well, tying Tait with a team-leading three assists, while also adding seven points.
“There were a lot of emotions going into Senior Night and it definitely made Senior Night a little extra special to end the day with a big win,” Occhipinti said. “However, after the Senior Night presentation in the beginning of the game, we were all business.”
The seniors were complimented by sophomore guard Kelly Roddy, who registered eight points in the victory, and junior forward/center Candice Vigo, who collected six rebounds.
The Lions continued their hot streak in the NJAC with a 60-44 victory over Rutgers University-Camden on Saturday, Feb. 11.
West delivered a team-high 12 points in the win, while Imhof and sophomore guard Tiffany DeTulio followed suit with 11 points each.
The wins over the Cougars and the Scarlet Raptors give the Lions a four-game winning streak heading into their first-round matchup in the NJAC Tournament on Saturday, Feb. 18, and that is a streak that Henderson expects to continue.
“We now have a modest four-game winning streak and a lot of self-confidence heading into the post season,” Henderson said. “I think we have done the work to give ourselves a legitimate shot at the NJAC title, and that’s what we expect.”