A euphoric circle made up of indistinguishable Lady Eagle players gathered near mid-court of the William M. Anderson Center on Saturday night as the University of Mary Washington women’s basketball team celebrated their conference tournament title.
“It was such a great feeling,” head coach Deena Applebury said. “The kids have worked so hard since last season when we lost in the semifinal round, so this was one of our goals. It was definitely an exciting evening for all of us.”
The women’s basketball team didn’t get off to a championship start in their battle for the Capital Athletic Conference crown against York College. The Eagles’ offense sputtered and their defense struggled as Applebury’s team fell behind early 9-4.
“It’s hard to get prepared for 27 games in a row. The kids did a really good job getting prepared, but there’s still definitely nervousness and jitters,” Applebury said. “But we settled down, in the second half especially, and we were able to pull out the win.”
Senior Katie Wimmer helped right the ship for UMW and get the offense on track. The veteran guard poured in 11 first half points and she was the main catalyst for Applebury in the early going.
However, though the offense improved, it was the Eagles trademark defense that helped them come back from the early deficit. Mary Washington held the visiting Spartans to just 29.2 percent shooting in the first half, which allowed UMW to take a narrow 24-23 halftime lead.
“If we aren’t shooting well then we just have to find a way to make sure our opponents shoot worse than us,” senior guard Jenna McRae said.
The Eagles’ shooting didn’t improve drastically in the second half, but their defense remained stout. York improved offensively yet they still were subpar, connecting on just 38.5 percent of their shots after halftime.
A lot of hustle plays that wouldn’t stick out or even show up in the box score were crucial to the Eagles’ win. A couple of trailing blocks by Wimmer in the second half helped prevent a pair of easy layups for the Spartans, while sophomore Aby Diop was all over the floor the entire game diving for loose balls and giving UMW extra possessions.
“I think we all did a good job handling the pressure at the end,” McRae said. “We all hit some big shots and free throws coming down the stretch that helped push us ahead. I think it helped that the game was close the whole way and every possession was important so it wasn’t much change when there was less than five-minutes left.”
Wimmer and McRae were the usual top-two performers for the Eagles. The pair of first-team All-CAC selections recorded 15 and 14 points respectively, while Wimmer added five assists and McRae chipped on the glass with eight rebounds. Kristen Haley and Aja Wallpher were the main offensive threats for York, as they duo combined for 28 points.
Now Applebury and her team have their eyes set on phase three of their season: the NCAA tournament. The Lady Eagles’ high national rank and the new top-flight basketball facility they play in have earned the university the honor to host the first two rounds of play. The first opponent for UMW will be Keuka College, and should they win, Applebury’s squad will host the winner of Messiah College and Kean University.
“It’s always a big advantage to get to play at home, especially because these teams are traveling a good distance the day before the most important game of all of our seasons,” McRae said. “The gym is getting all set up and ready to go and I think its really get all of us excited.”
Applebury described Keuka as a guard-oriented team, and the CAC Coach of the Year expressed confidence in how her team matched up against the New York-based institution.
“At this time of the year when it comes down to one-and-done it’s all about matchups,” Applebury said. “Against Keuka we just have to come out and play strong. We have to settle in right away and get rid of the nerves and play our game. If we do that, we’ll be fine and we’ll be in that second round game on Saturday.”