As far as Rebecca Lee was concerned, top-seeded Mount St. Mary’s meeting No. 2 seed Wagner in the Northeast Conference women’s basketball tournament final was poetic justice.
The Mountaineers’ march to their first regular-season crown since 2001 and ninth overall had been watered down slightly by a season-ending sweep by the Seahawks on March 4 and 5. They had defeated a coronavirus-depleted Fairleigh Dickinson squad in Wednesday night’s tournament semifinal and had swept the other semifinalist, Saint Francis.
So the back-to-back losses did not sit well with the Mount St. Mary’s players. And a 70-38 dismantling of Wagner in Sunday afternoon’s title game at Knott Arena, giving the Mountaineers their first NCAA tournament berth since 1995, provided a fitting end.
“We wouldn’t want it any other way because we had beaten Saint Francis two times. So that wasn’t really a question,” Lee said. “And I wouldn’t want any COVID cases to just advance us to the tournament. We had to beat Wagner to make a statement and make it undisputed that we are the champs.”
Coach Maria Marchesano said that even the coaches desired another shot at the Seahawks.
“We went up there last week and got our butts kicked, and the girls wanted this matchup,” she said. “They wanted to prove that was a fluke and that we could beat them. So credit to our girls. They really dug in today and took care of business.”
The Mountaineers’ fourth overall tournament championship and first since 1995 was an exhaustive display of their might on both ends of the court. The offense dug out of a 12-4 hole with 4:37 left in the first quarter to draw within one at 15-14 by the end of the period and then opened the second frame with a 14-2 run that would never be seriously threatened afterward.
After giving up 15 points in the first quarter, the defense allowed the Seahawks to score only 23 over the final three periods and prevented them from scoring a single point over stretches of 6:18, 5:35 and 4:47 at various points. Wagner’s 38 points were the fewest of the season and the lowest since Feb. 10, 2020, when that squad was walloped, 77-35, by Robert Morris.
Marchesano credited associate head coach Antoine White with mapping out a strategy that included assigning 5-foot-10 redshirt senior guard Kendall Bresee, the conference’s Player and Defensive Player of the Year, to mark Seahawks junior point guard Zhaneia Thybulle (zero points, four assists and three turnovers). And the 6-2 Lee and 5-11 freshman Isabella Hunt limited junior forward Emilija Krista Grava to nine points and five rebounds after she had racked up 50 points and 10 rebounds in two games against Mount St. Mary’s.
“Going into those games last week, obviously we had a little bit of a hangover from winning the regular season, but we also didn’t have a very good game plan,” Marchesano said. “Once we got back and watched some film and really dissected what they were about, we were able to kind of take away their strengths today. … We settled into our game plan and they really struggled to score.”
Lee was the catalyst for the Mountaineers throughout the tournament. The Severn resident and Old Mill graduate finished with 18 points and 11 rebounds (seven offensive) for her fifth double double of the season and her fourth in her last eight starts.
Not coincidentally, Lee was recognized as the tournament’s Most Valuable Player after amassing 19 points and 13 rebounds (10 offensive) in Wednesday night’s 77-62 victory over Fairleigh Dickinson in a tournament semifinal.
“It feels good,” she said. “This has been four years in the making for me. These four years have been hard, but getting to this point, I definitely know that it’s worth it.”
Lee was joined on the All-Tournament team by redshirt sophomore guard Aryna Taylor, who had 18 points and four rebounds for a two-game total of 35 points and 11 rebounds, and Bresee, who had 10 points, eight rebounds and eight assists for a tournament total of 18 points, 15 rebounds and 13 assists.
“Offensively, we just really focused in on playing our game whether that was pushing the ball or calming down and not letting them speed us up,” Bresee said. “They really sped us up in the first two games. I think we realized that we just needed to take a breath and calm down.”
Mount St. Mary’s became the first school to win the Northeast Conference men’s and women’s basketball championships in the same season since the Mountaineers did it in 1995. No other school has repeated that feat since the women’s tournament began in 1987.
That the women reached this stage while overcoming two coronavirus-related pauses (one in the preseason and one in December) and the departures of senior shooting guard Jatarrikah Settle in December and junior forward Taylor Addison in January spoke volumes to Marchesano about the support the program has received from the administration and the fans who were unable to attend any games this season.
“Basketball’s important here,” she said. “This is a basketball community, and for us to be able to do it in the same year, our staffs are extremely close, we’re cheering each other on constantly, we have each other’s backs, we’re sharing ideas. So for us to both be in the dance in the same year, I’m just so happy for this community.”
NCAA selection show
Monday, 7 p.m.