Navy women’s basketball played in the Patriot League Tournament championship game just once in 18 years prior to the arrival of Stefanie Pemper as head coach.
So it is rather amazing the Midshipmen will now be making their fifth finals appearance in the span of a decade under Pemper’s guidance.
Pemper credits pride and tradition for that consistent success. Navy captured three consecutive Patriot League championships in 2011, 2012 and 2013. That remarkable run set a standard that subsequent teams have sought to match.
That helps explain why, for the second straight season, a Navy squad that was not highly regarded in preseason is playing for the Patriot League Tournament title.
“We have created a tradition of believing we can win and I do think there is a lot of that wrapped up in this,” Pemper said. “We seem to step up in the postseason and I’m sure that past history plays a big part. There was definitely a point this season when we were talking with the team and one of the coaches said that we aspire to championships. We have fostered an attitude of being really competitive and striving for excellence.”
Third-seeded Navy (25-6) will seek its fourth conference crown in Pemper’s 10-year tenure when it takes on top-seeded American (25-6) on Sunday morning (11 a.m.) at Bender Arena. The winner receives an automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament.
This culminates a season-long quest for Navy, which lost to Bucknell in last year’s Patriot League Tournament final.
“It feels really good. After losing in the championship game last year, to be able to get back to this point and have chance to redeem ourselves is very rewarding. We’re all really excited that we have this opportunity,” Navy senior guard Taylor Dunham said.
History is against Navy on a lot of levels going into Sunday’s contest, which will be televised by the CBS Sports Network. First and foremost, the No. 1 seed has posted a 19-1 record in the championship game. Also, the home team boasts a 23-2 record in the championship game. Meanwhile, the Midshipmen are 0-5 against the top seed in the Patriot League Tournament.
None of that matters to this year’s team, which seems to be peaking at the right time. Navy is coming off its best performance of the season and it produced a 68-62 upset of second-seeded Bucknell on Tuesday. The Bison, who had swept the regular season series with the Mids, never led on their home court and had every rally rebuffed.
“I’ve had this sense that these women want to perform on a big stage. It is fun at the end of the season to see people step up and do things you know they are capable of doing,” Pemper said. “Some of the words our women have said in meetings and huddles lately have been so inspirational. We’re definitely getting their best both on and off the court.”
American and Navy are both seeking a storybook ending to special seasons. Both programs have set school records for victories in a season, not bad considering the Eagles and Midshipmen were picked third and fourth, respectively, in the Patriot League presesason poll.
American captured its first Patriot League championship in 2015, which was the first season for head coach Megan Gebbia. The Eagles then took a step backward, going 8-23 in 2015-2106 and 15-16 in 2016-2017.
So this has marked a bounce-back campaign for a six-player senior class that is led by star guard Emily Kinneston, the Patriot League Player of the Year.
“These seniors were freshmen in 2015 and saw how quickly things can change. We went from 24 wins to eight the following year,” Gebbia said. “Going into this season, the onus was on the seniors to get the program back on a winning track. They have certainly done that and more.”
American and Navy split during the regular season with the home team winning each time. Free throw shooting was the difference as the Eagles defeated the Mids, 46-41, on Jan. 5 in D.C. Both teams shot miserably from the field, but American made 12 of 17 foul shots.
“That was a funky game, an ugly game,” Pemper said this week. “It was not a great basketball game on any level. That happens sometimes in early January.”
American had already clinched the regular season championship when it came to Annapolis on Feb. 28 and got hammered by Navy, 76-49. It was the most lopsided loss in program history, but the Eagles were without their two best players in Kinneston and forward Cecily Carl.
“Beating American as soundly as we did does give our players confidence. At the same time, we have our heads on straight and remember what happened in the first game,” Pemper said. “I do think the last game was somewhat of an anomaly and certainly influenced by the fact they did not have two good players.”
Gebbia is not willing to give her squad a pass on what went down at Alumni Hall in the regular season finale.
“What I said in the locker room after the game was that I was disappointed in our defensive effort. I wasn’t going to make any excuses. Not having Emily and Cecily might have impacted the offense, but there was no reason for our defense to fall apart,” she said. “We’re going to use it as motivation. We ended on a bad note with Navy and I would hope that gives our team more incentive going into this game.”
Kinneston is averaging just shy of 16 points per game while shooting 45 percent from the field. The 5-foot-8 senior, who is also averaging 5.1 rebounds and 4.3 assists, has shown tremendous versatility as a scorer.
“Emily is extremely athletic and such an offensive threat,” Pemper said. “She has a really nice pull-up jumper and can make the three. She’s a strong driver who can finish at the basket or draw contact to get to line. She can use ball screens to get open or post up and score at will.”
This will be Navy’s first encounter with Carl, a rugged 6-foot-3 junior who is averaging 12.7 points and 8.3 rebounds. Carl also missed the January meeting with the Mids due to illness.
Navy leads the Patriot League and ranks eighth nationally in scoring defense, allowing an average of just 53.8 points per game. The Mids stand seventh on the Division I level in field goal percentage defense, forcing opponents to shoot 34.8 percent.
“I think both teams play great defense so I would not be surprised to see a low-scoring game like the first time around,” Gebbia said.
Navy has employed its “blizzard” defense to great effect during this year’s Patriot League Tournament, causing both Loyola and Bucknell problems. That is the nickname the coaching staff has given to a zone defense that enables the Mids to trap all over the court.
“I think at this time of the year as a coach you want to have confidence in anything you decided to put out there. That zone is something we have used periodically all season and the players doing it,” Pemper said. “I do think it suits our personnel.”
Junior guard Bianca Roach, who is probably Navy’s best defender, has proven particularly disruptive in the “blizzard.” Kaila Clark, a 5-foot-11 sophomore forward, has also proven quite effective when trapping because of her long arms and athleticism.
“Navy is playing that 2-1-2 a lot more and I think they are very comfortable with it,” said Gebbia, who did not think American attacked the defense well this season. “They are doing a good job of forcing turnovers, forcing bad shots, forcing indecision on the part of ball-handlers.”
Navy has been led all season by Dunham and fellow senior guard Hannah Fenske, who have shared the scoring and playmaking roles. Dunham is averaging 14.7 points and has dished off 91 assists while Fenske is netting 11 points per game and amassed 121 assists.
“Those two are playing really good basketball and just showing up big-time. They’re our go-to scorers, but are also so selfless,” Pemper said. “I think the younger players on the team are inspired and motivated by the leadership Hannah and Taylor are providing.”
Gebbia said American cannot allow Dunham and Fenske to dictate on the offensive end. She was not giving away any secrets when stating the Eagles will try to get the ball out of their hands.
“Dunham and Fenske are the catalysts who can create for themselves and others. They have great chemistry and play very well together,” Gebbia said. “If you can find a way to take Dunham and Fenske out of the game, obviously Navy is going to struggle a bit. If we’re going to win, we need to make their bigs become the heroes.”
Television has dictated the 11 a.m. start, which will seem even earlier due to the fact clocks spring forward by an hour overnight. Navy is staying at a hotel in Washington in order to shorten the bus ride to Bender Arena.