By Malcolm Luck
Despite the College’s loss to Montclair State University on Feb. 23, the team punched its ticket to the NCAA Division III women’s basketball tournament. The Lions defeated Hilbert College 61-42 on Friday, March 2, but ultimately fell to Rochester Institute of Technology just a day later by a score of 79-76, ending the team’s spectacular season.
Coming into the tournament, head coach Chessie Jackson knew that the team felt further motivation to win.
“I think whenever we’re talking about an NCAA tournament game, there is extra motivation,” Jackson said. “We weren’t ready to be finished with our season, and falling short in the NJAC championship lit a fire in our squad for sure. It was also refreshing to have a full week between games and to play a non-conference opponent for the first time in a while. And hosting made the entire experience that much more special.”
The College’s first round matchup in Packer Hall against Hilbert was striking. Junior guard Kate O’Leary scored first on an assist from sophomore forward Jen Byrne. By the end of the first quarter, the Lions acquired a 15-9 lead.
Both teams fought more fiercely in the second quarter. Despite two early three-pointers from Hilbert, the resilient Lions refused to trail off a strong effort from freshman forward Shannon Devitt. With dominant play inside the paint, she was responsible for all of the team’s final eight points of the quarter and gave the College a commanding 34-21 lead at the half.
Despite Hilbert’s six unanswered points in the middle of the third quarter, the Lions’ lead could not be surpassed, as the team was up by 18 by the quarter’s end. They eventually won by 19 with a final score of 61-42.
Less than 24 hours later, the College returned to Packer Hall to take on RIT in the second round of the tournament. RIT, who defeated the University of New England in the first round, proved to be a tougher match for the Lions from the start.
The Lions benefitted from three-point shots early on, starting with a pair from junior forward Samantha Famulare to cut the College’s early deficit to 7-6. O’Leary followed up with two three-pointers of her own, giving the team a 12-9 lead. RIT then countered with a fastbreak layup from senior forward Amanda Olsen. O’Leary’s hot hand found the bottom of the net on another three to end the quarter with the Lions up, 19-15.
In the second quarter, Byrne contributed to the team’s flurry of three-pointers, adding two more on back-to-back possessions off assists from senior guard Charlotte Schum and Devitt. By then, the Lions led 34-26.
RIT eventually cut the Lions’ lead by four, but couldn’t contain O’Leary long enough to surpass the Lions, as she drained her fourth three-pointer of the game to put the Lions up 39-32. Following a layup from Schum, O’Leary scored a basket off a layup in the paint, drawing a foul in the process with just one second left on the clock. Her free throw sent RIT to the locker room with a 44-32 deficit.
RIT returned in the second half, hungry for a Sweet Sixteen appearance.
Eight points proved to be an unsustainable lead as RIT clamped down on the defensive end of the floor in the fourth quarter. Following two free throws by RIT, Schum drained a three-pointer off an assist from senior forward Nikki Schott, but was quickly countered by back-to-back three-pointers from RIT senior guard Jessica Glaz.
RIT then followed up when junior guard Cori Okada made a layup to cut the Lions’ lead down to 66-65. Okada later tied the game with another three-pointer following a layup by Byrne.
With 1:32 minutes remaining, Schum drained a three-pointer to give the College a 74-72 lead. The home crowd’s roaring enthusiasm at Packer Hall was not enough to lead the Lions to victory in an elimination game.
RIT launched a comeback when freshman guard Sabrina Wolfe scored the game-tying layup. Okada then helped RIT reclaim the lead off a clutch three-pointer. Following layups from Devitt and RIT junior forward Tara Lynch, Byrne tried to save the Lions’ season with a game-tying three-point attempt.
The hovering basketball did not find the the basket, as the women’s basketball team’s season concluded with a 79-76 loss.
After a strong first half to take a commanding lead, the Lions were outscored 47-32 in the second half to cough up the lead. Jackson partially attributes the second half struggle to fatigue.
“I think our second half vs. RIT was due to a combination of factors. We haven’t played back-to-back games since November, and so fatigue was a clear factor.”
She also credits RIT’s clutch offensive play down the stretch.
“RIT’s guard play was fantastic, and they hit some pretty remarkable shots late in the game to go on a few runs that we struggled to counter,” Jackson said. “I think that our offense is really dictated by our defense, and so when we weren’t getting stops, it was increasingly difficult to score against them.”
Despite the tournament loss, Jackson was not ready to think about next season just yet. Instead, she continued to focus on the accomplishments her team achieved this season.
“I am hopeful that our returners can become more consistent moving into next season, but our roster will look very different next year, so I don’t want to get ahead of myself thinking too much about an NCAA tournament run quite yet,” Jackson said. “We really focused on one day at a time this year, and I want to continue doing that moving forward. I am incredibly proud of our team for everything we were able to achieve this season. Our seniors were tremendous leaders, and the entire group brought a renewed focus and energy into every new challenge. I am looking forward to seeing what we can accomplish in the future.”