Richmond, VA— The Atlantic 10 Championship has been the most competitive it has been with each contest at Richmond Coliseum being hard fought which means it should be no surprise to see the lowest-seeded championship final in conference history as fifth-seeded George Washington and sixth-seeded Saint Joseph’s advanced to the finals.
The play in Richmond saw the fifth, sixth and seventh seeds win quarterfinal contests while top-seeded Dayton held serve to secure the final semifinal berth.
Here is a breakdown of both semifinal games.
George Washington 58 Dayton 53
In the first contest, George Washington avenged two regular season setbacks with its 58-53 victory over Dayton Saturday.
Perhaps the biggest difference was that GW had one turnover on the game, while Dayton had 11 such miscues.
“We’ve been harping on the turnovers all year and a month ago, we were top 10 in turnovers per game,” GW coach Jennifer Rizzotti said. “It was a progressive journey. We started the season and had 16 turnovers at Princeton and couldn’t execute. We put in a brand new offense this year and to sit here today, it’s like a thing of beauty when you don’t tell them what to run. We had to play well to beat Dayton today. It’s fun as a coach to see the progress they have made on both sides of the ball.”
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Last season GW was coming off two consecutive Atlantic 10 Championships but in Rizzotti’s first season with the team, the regular season champions fell to Duquesne.
“Last year was disappointing, we had an excellent season and losing last season wasn’t what we wanted,” senior guard Brianna Cummings said. “We were ready, we came in here knew what we had to do and took care of business, but we’re not finished.”
According to the Colonials, there was no much adjustment from the two regular season meetings, but there certainly was something which won the game for them.
“It was our heart and determination,” junior forward Kelsi Mahoney said. “We’ve beaten a team three times in a row this season and we sure as heck weren’t going to lose three times in a season. All of us did our job and executed.”
Mahoney has come up big in both of GW’s wins in Richmond and after being tasked with guarding Atlantic 10 Player of the Year Natalie Butler in the quarterfinals was assigned to guard the also taller Jordan Wilmoth at times and largely found success.
Additionally, she made two key shots in the fourth quarter to ensure GW stayed out in front of Dayton.
“Kelsi Mahoney is probably one of the most underrated players in the league, we run half of our offense through her, makes big shots and is really smart,” said Rizzotti. “She uses her intelligence and toughness to find a way.”
Dayton meanwhile got off to a slow start in which coach Shauna Green yelled at her team to wake up, which it did, but still trailed at halftime for the first time since Dec. 6
“I thought we just came out flat,” she said. “I called that timeout and I usually don’t call timeouts early but I called that timeout to remind them that there are no breaks and that it is about every possession. After that timeout we picked it up and finished that half great. They came out a couple of possession. I knew it was going to be this type of game where every possession mattered and we didn’t make plays that we normally make.”
Dayton is a team which likes to attack but had no fast break points and had six assists on 17 makes, shooting 20% from the field in the second quarter and 23.1% in the third quarter.
“Energy is the main thing we talk about all of the time,” senior guard Jenna Burdette said. “We normally feed off each other’s shot-making abilities so today was not that day and we need to do a better job of keeping the energy up and staying positive.”
Dayton is likely going to make the NCAA Tournament and Rizzotti herself called Dayton “an NCAA Tournament team if I have ever seen one”. ESPN women’s basketball bracketologist Charlie Creme tweeted after the loss that the Atlantic 10 had become a two-bid league, which means he believes Dayton will stay in the field and confirmed this by text just prior to the second semifinal contest.
“I hope we get that opportunity, I think we deserve it,” said Green. “The last time I was in that locker room with a loss and I was the assistant it was to GW and that was Andrea Hoover and Aly Mallott’s senior years. I’ve never felt so low and as a team, we were so upset that we didn’t win that championship, which again is a testament to how hard it is to win this thing. We didn’t even care about the NCAA Tournament at that point and we went on an elite eight run. I told them that story and right now it hurts, it should hurt. It hurts us all because our goal wasn’t this, but if we can get an opportunity, it is about regrouping and going out there and making a run at the tournament if we make it. I know that they will respond and that we will have an opportunity in the postseason.”
Saint Joseph’s 58 Saint Louis 49
On Saint Joseph’s trip up to Richmond, coach Cindy Griffin had a special film to show to her team, the 2013 Atlantic 10 Championship team.
“I’ll tell you, we didn’t play well in that game it was a grinding game and I’m sure tomorrow will be the same,” Griffin said. “It’s going to come down to possessions so I think they saw that, they want to experience that celebration but it’s not going to come easy and they saw that in the 2013 game.”
On the other end, Saint Louis was crying on the postgame press conference podium not just at the loss or the matter of how the setback occurred but the thought that six decorated seniors may not play again.
One of those seniors, Jackie Kemph, one of it not the most decorate blue to wear Billikens Blue stopped herself before speaking and began to cry which made fellow senior Jenny Vliet and coach Lisa Stone cry as well.
They all were pleading SLU’s case for a WNIT berth.
“I think we all want to have another game, I mean no one wants to go out like that,” Kemph said through tears. “We have six seniors, had a tough schedule, some tough losses, but we’re a really good team. You can tell by some of those wins that we want to go out there and work hard for 40 minutes, we have the talent and ability to beat a lot of good teams so it would mean a lot. I hope that the group of girls can go out there and play again.”
Saint Louis has been a fixture in the A-10 semifinals for the past three seasons but in each has not been able to find the winner’s circle.
Stone’s Billikens never led in this game and afterwards she told the media that though she was proud of her team, it just was never able to get over the hump.
“You can see the emotion here, it’s hard,” said Stone. “My shoutout is to whomever picks teams for the WNIT, I hope we are one of them. This team deserves to play some more. We went out and scheduled, if we had done some of the things we did in the past and get 20 wins, it’s a no brainer. They need to look at our schedule. We all want to see that senior class one more time.”
Saint Joseph’s meanwhile was able to accomplish its season goal, getting one step farther than last year’s semifinal defeat using its fast start to set the tempo.
It earned this win over a Saint Louis team which won a 96-73 game at Chaifetz Arena on Jan. 21. Though Saint Joseph’s was not fully healthy at the time, the setback was enough for graduate student forward Amanda Fioravanti to call Saturday afternoon a revenge game.
Saint Joseph’s will now face another revenge game tomorrow against George Washington. The two teams met Feb. 17 in Philadelphia with Saint Joseph’s at full strength and GW took the contest by a 49-46 score.
“That game just slipped away from us and thank god we have another opportunity with this team,” Fioravanti said.
Dayton 67 Richmond 58
Dayton was looking for momentum in the third quarter as Richmond was winning nearly every 50-50 ball when junior guard Lauren Cannatelli drove to the basket and converted a layup despite being fouled.
The Flyers did not turn back and were able to win the contest in front of an arena mostly full of students.
“With the flow of the game, I think the ball bounced both ways for both teams,” Cannatelli said. “We had to stay positive and keep being aggressive. With my basket, I saw an opening, saw a lane attacked and got an and-one.”
Dayton won its first 15 regular season contests before falling to Saint Louis this past Sunday and had a week to think about it and played an essential road game in addition to polishing off some rust.
“We need to be able to find a way and we made plays on the defense end,” Dayton coach Shauna Green said. “This time of the year you just find a way to play another day.”
Richmond led by one point after the first quarter, but the defense became loose in the second quarter and that combined with a tough shot selection got Dayton into more of a flow.
The loss ends the playing career of Micaela Parson. Parson was voted the conference’s most improved player and her game had many wrinkles that could change a game on a dime.
“Freshman year was a struggle coming from a different program with different sets and defenses,” she said. “He (coach Michael Shafer) was on me a lot but that made me become a better player. Mid-January freshman year, I found my role and could get to the basket, it fueled me into sophomore year because we got a bad call in the NIT. Since then I developed just getting to the basket, so sophomore year to junior year I found momentum. Junior year and we weren’t happy with how it went and met with my other juniors and determined it was our team now and together we knew what we needed to work on and that we weren’t going to end the same way. The knowledge that this was my senior year got me to play very hard.”
Shafer was asked for where his thoughts were in that moment and he immediately turned to, Parson and Alicia Hudalla, two seniors whom also were on the podium.
“I didn’t feel like the program was going in a good direction,” said Shafer. “Those seniors knew we had to change. I don’t know if it is where you want it to be but it is going in the right direction. These seniors got everything they could out of their ability and for that I am proud of them because they are going to be successful when they go forward because they know how to be.”
George Washington 64 George Mason 59
It is very tough to beat an opponent three times in the same season, however Friday afternoon’s version of the Revolutionary Rivalry had the same final outcome as its two predecessors.
“I definitely think that we want to keep our heads on our shoulders,” senior forward Kelli Prange said. “We knew there would be ups and downs, having that stop and score mentality is what we have emphasized these past few games.”
It appeared as though George Mason would take a three-point advantage into the fourth quarter, but instead GW’s Kelsi Mahoney sank a three which beat the buzzer and deadlocked the contest.
“I thought we had our five best defenders on the floor,” George Mason coach Nyla Milleson said. “Mahoney, that’s what she does, she shoots the three. We had a soft switch and close out, we should have been up three with momentum but that shifted immediately and then I thought we really played on heels in the fourth quarter.”
George Mason still has a chance to earn a postseason berth in the WNIT based on its team and individual regular season accomplishments, something which would please Milleson given that the team has been able to accomplish that just two times prior.
Mason is now 23-9 on the season and has the Atlantic 10 Player of the Year in Natalie Butler who has 31 consecutive double-doubles and Nicole Cardaño-Hillary who was named Atlantic 10 Freshman of the Year in addition to making the all-conference third team. This pair also has a strong supporting cast which could flourish in a WNIT setting.
“It’s tough to overlook a loss, especially this loss, but coach said to us in the locker room that we have a chance for postseason play so after today we can look forward to that, get back to practice and work on the things that we need to work on,” graduate student Natalie Butler said. “It’s a good opportunity and we need to stay positive.”
As for GW its senior leadership has once again helped will this team to victory and collectively they hope this train never stops.
“Our energy and intensity is just high because we know at any moment these are our last games,” senior guard Brianna Cummings said. “We’re looking to make a huge run in this tournament.”
Saint Louis 71 Duquesne 65
Though the number besides its name had a seven next to it, senior guard Paige Rakers never once considered Saint Louis a seven seed.
“We woke up and realized that we have nothing to lose and we have to go now,” she said. “We’ve just been playing well together and connected.”
“This team has not gone astray,” Saint Louis coach Lisa Stone said. “We’ve been in every single game outside of the Washington State game. We’ve challenged this team and they’ve responded. It’s all about growth, getting better, caring for kids and getting them to stay in the boat.”
Duquesne meanwhile was upset at the foul discrepancy given both teams were trying to drive to the basket. Saint Louis took 27 free throw’s to Duquesne’s 10 with SLU senior guard Jackie Kemph getting 16 free throws all by her lonesome.
“We teach our kids to drive to the basket and we will get some calls,” Duquesne coach Dan Burt said. “27-10, take away the three at the end, that’s still double the amount of free throws. What can I say to my team?”
Duquesne admits that it did not play its “A” game in this setback and senior guard Chassidy Omogrosso added that her team was not competitive for the full 40 minutes.
“We should have a competitive edge every game, a chip on our shoulder every game and we didn’t have that tonight,” she said. “If we don’t come out every game like we want to take their heads off then, I don’t know. This isn’t a good feeling and hopefully this feeling will stay with us and it will drive us.”
For Saint Louis this is revenge for the past few meetings between these teams. Duquesne beat Saint Louis two seasons ago in the Atlantic 10 Championship semifinal, handed SLU its worst loss in regular season conference play last season and then won at Chaifetz Arena by 10 points earlier this season in a contest Kemph netted just two points.
“Paige and I both have had a lot of very rough games against Duquesne,” said Kemph. “We’re excited to have gotten this win and coming in as the seven seed to beat the two seed. We know we’re not a seven seed but it’s still a big win.”
Saint Joseph’s 52 Fordham 49
Saint Joseph’s had not made a three-point shot all game long but the one senior guard Sarah Veilleux made with 0.6 seconds remaining in the game was enough to advance to the Atlantic 10 Championship semifinals.
These two teams had played six days prior and in a similar circumstance, Chelsea Woods made a shot in the closing seconds in what then was a 52-50 contest.
Fordham guarded Woods hard Friday night to avoid repeating Saturday’s mistake but it left Veilleux wide open and she made them pay.
“Chelsea’s passes are always on the money, that was an absolutely perfect pass,” Veilleux said. “I struggled obviously the whole game and after the pass came, I just felt it from the corner.”
Fordham seemed to be in a good position having received some good fortune of its own. Saint Joseph’s had a foul to give before the bonus would activate and freshman guard Bre Cavanaugh sensed it going up for a three-point shot while Veilleux fouled her, something the latter sheepishly smiled at after the game.
Cavanaugh sank two of three free throws to tie the game.
“My associate head coach Ang(elika Szumilo) said to me ‘they’re going to foul, they have two to give, let’s tell Bre to shoot’,” Fordham coach Stephanie Gaitley said. “I yelled to Bre to try and shoot it and I give her a lot of credit. She put us on the line and at least got us in a position to tie it.”
Gaitley was disappointed with the team’s defensive effort in the first game but Friday senior forward G’mrice Davis seemed pleased, save for the fourth quarter when Fordham’s post players were in foul trouble and allowed Saint Joseph’s to shoot 53.8%
“I feel like everyone was locked in for the most part,” said Davis. “We had each others backs and got stop when we needed it to. I was proud that we stuck together through their runs instead of bickering we kept chipping away and played defense.”
When it comes down to surviving and advancing, Saint Joseph’s certainly has had that down to a science.
“Sometimes as a coach you over coach but at the end of the day you have to leave it in the hands of the kids that make the play,” Saint Joseph’s coach Cindy Griffin said. “(Chelsea) Woods can make the play and we left it to one of our higher-percentage shooters. We’ve been in these situations maybe a little too often, but they are definitely paying off at this time of the year.”
\The venue for next year’s Atlantic 10 Championships has yet to be confirmed due to a revitalization process which will either demolish or rehabilitate Richmond Coliseum. It is unknown whether this will occur later on in 2018 or in 2019. Should there need to be a new venue, the athletic directors will meet and make that determination… La Salle has opted not to renew its now former coach Jeff Williams’s contract, an announcement made by a Friday press release. “Jeff has given eight years to La Salle and we appreciate his commitment to the program,” La Salle Director of Athletics Bill Bradshaw said. “We wish him nothing but the best in the future.” Williams, the 2016-17 Atlantic 10 Women’s Basketball Coach of the Year was 92-149 in his time with La Salle and the Explorers were 8-22 this season.