By Adam Zielonka
This article was originally published in Issue 10, Fiftieth Year of The Minstrel (March 3, 2016). Click here to view the entire issue.
The DeSales women’s basketball team didn’t know for sure that their 2015-16 season ended Saturday, but they sure felt like it did.
“Once that buzzer rang, it was just confirmation that our season was most likely done,” senior Kelly Anthony said.
Yes, memories of jubilant celebration at Billera Hall from the previous Wednesday’s thrilling semifinal victory were wiped away on Saturday, Feb. 27 as DeSales lost the Freedom Conference Championship Game to Fairleigh-Dickinson Florham, 69-44. The team missed out on one of 20 at-large bids into the NCAA Division III Basketball Championship, which were announced on Monday, Feb. 29.
For Anthony and fellow senior Jen Napolitano, not only did the end of their season loom, but the end of their respective careers, as well.
“At the end of the game, it was really nice to be on the court with Kelly because we play the same position, so that never happens,” Napolitano said through tears. “To spend my last few minutes of basketball ever with one of my best friends was really great.”
In DeSales’ semifinal game on Feb. 24, Manhattanville College took the game to overtime with a fourth-quarter surge, but star Bulldog center Morgan McCollian made the game-winning shot at the overtime buzzer. Napolitano received an inbound pass from Kaitlin Kelly with two seconds left and passed it to McCollian in the middle of the paint, who banked in her shot right as time expired to seal the 69-68 triumph. McCollian finished that game with 33 points, which tied her career high, and 14 rebounds.
DeSales faced a different challenge in the championship game. They split their regular season series, but second-seeded FDU-Florham were Division III National Champions in 2014 and had won the conference three years in a row, the length of Anthony’s and Napolitano’s careers.
The Devils’ 28-21 lead at halftime did not portray how close the first half was. Neither team held a lead larger than four points until FDU-Florham’s Raven Dowling made a three-pointer just nine seconds before the end of the half. DeSales did not help themselves in those first 20 minutes by making only nine of their 31 field goal attempts, and they failed to get to the free-throw line even once. McCollian was effectively shut down, tallying only two points and two rebounds.
FDU- Florham blew open their lead with 10 unanswered points in the first two minutes of the third quarter. They extended their run to 12-0 before, nearly five minutes into the quarter, Morgan Birmelin’s steal and layup got DeSales back on the board. But it didn’t provide the spark the Bulldogs needed, and the Devils took control the rest of the way. Angelica Bertola made one of two free throws with 1:55 left in the game, the first and only time DeSales earned free throws all game. Conversely, the Devils made 24 of 29 free throws, contributing in a big way to the 25-point margin.
Megan Baird came off the bench to lead DeSales with 11 points, including three three-pointers. Napolitano added nine points and McCollian finished with eight points and a team-high five rebounds.
The result of one game, even one lopsided half, did not completely dampen the seniors’ broader outlook.
“I kind of thought back on the year as a whole, and even though our last game didn’t end the way we wanted it to, it’s not reflective of our whole season. We had a great season,” Anthony said.
And she’s right—it was a season strong enough, in fact, to garner consideration for a national at-large bid. DeSales finished the season 20-7 and dominated the Freedom with a remarkable 12-2 conference record. McCollian, a first-team All-MAC Freedom selection, finished the season with 17.7 points per game and 9.5 rebounds per game. Birmelin led the conference with 4.7 assists per game in her freshman campaign, and Napolitano (second-team All-MAC Freedom) led the conference with an outstanding .403 three-point shooting percentage. More importantly, they dominated as a team, scoring 70 points per game in the regular season while allowing opponents to 58.6.
The Bulldogs entered their roller-coaster week ranked fourth in the Division III Atlantic Region, a good spot for NCAA consideration. After an exhilarating win and a gut-wrenching loss in the span of four days, their season is now over. But the seniors lost their last chance to win the conference, and—if only for a long two days after their defeat—that was hard enough to process.