BY Rob Witham
A magical team with a special chemistry, who made a run that few expected that included the program’s first NCAA Tournament victory in seven years, finally met a foe they could not topple, a dragon they could not slay.
The relentless, full-court defensive pressure of Christopher Newport ended Randolph-Macon’s women’s basketball season as the Captains pulled away in the second half for an 84-58 victory Saturday night at a packed and raucous Crenshaw Gymnasium. The Yellow Jackets’ best season in five years ended with a record of 23-6. It is the fifth time that Randolph-Macon, under head coach Carroll LaHaye, has won 23 games in a season, a number exceeded on only four other occasions.
Christopher Newport, who advance to the NCAA Division III Women’s Round of Sixteen for the third consecutive year, trapped, pressed, double-teamed, and, sometimes, triple-teamed the Yellow Jackets, defending every square inch of the court while forcing Randolph-Macon into 31 turnovers, which harvested 30 points for the Captains.
It was a level of speed, pressure, and length the Yellow Jackets simply had not seen this season. On top of that, Christopher Newport substituted at will, playing twelve players in the first period alone, trying to wear down a Randolph-Macon team that went no more than eight deep. Before they knew it, the Captains had a 17-6 lead, and the Yellow Jackets had more turnovers at the time (seven) than points.
Despite the struggles, there was no letdown in the fight and heart shown by the Yellow Jackets for forty minutes. In the final game in what should be a season that brings her National Player of The Year accolades, sophomore Kelly Williams scored 21 points and grabbed 15 rebounds, showing an outwardly fierce competitiveness that had not been shown before.
“I don’t know why I played harder,” Williams explained when asked about her fighting spirit that evening. “Maybe it was because of the atmosphere, maybe it’s that I remember I didn’t have such a great game last night and I wanted to do better. But maybe it was because I would be done with all my friends playing basketball for what we’ve been doing since the beginning of the year.”
Williams’ final point needs to be explored, deeply, when it comes to a synopsis of the Yellow Jackets’ season. Despite Williams’ incredible numbers, it would be totally unfair to label this as “Williams’ Team”.
For example, when the Yellow Jackets began to solve the riddle of Christopher Newport’s full-court press, the final answer was usually sophomore forward Charlotte Woods, who time and again got behind the defense for interior points, or muscled her way into the paint for rebounds on both ends of the floor. Woods, also a sophomore, registered her 13th double-double of the year with 14 points and 12 rebounds.
A Woods basket with 6:13 left before halftime brought the Yellow Jackets back within six at 29-23. But Christopher Newport would score the next seven points in a stretch that saw four Yellow Jacket turnovers and three fouls. Randolph-Macon dug back into the deficit, as a Leara Shumate basket in the interior cut the Captains lead back to eight at 37-29 with 2:37 left. But Christopher Newport ended the half on a 10-2 run and enjoyed a 47-31 lead at the break.
The second half was a continual story of Randolph-Macon hoping to find a final big run to place them in position for a storybook comeback. But that was not to be, as the Yellow Jackets never got closer than thirteen points. Sam Porter led the Captains with 19 points while Bailey Dufrene, who played the most minutes for Christopher Newport with 29, scored 16. In all, thirteen Captains scored, with ten of them playing nine minutes or more.
By comparison, Williams only left the court to fix a knee brace issue, logging 38 minutes, as did guard Kelsey Wisner, who scored six points. Jayla Wade finished with seven points.
While the Captains’ defense can certainly be credited with fueling the victory, LaHaye knows that it wasn’t all their doing.
“They played their game, and we allowed them to play their game,” LaHaye explained to reporters following the loss. “We were able to break the press several different times. They tweaked it, made adjustments, and with his hockey-style subbing, it was constant chaos out there, and it’s not like we’ve playing against this all season long. Some of our mistakes were just fear…and that happens with a young group.”
When asked to comment about Williams’ chances to win National Division III Player of The Year honors, LaHaye, in her usual humble demeanor, still made, for her, an emphatic push.
“I certainly think that she has the statistics, and she deserves several looks,” LaHaye said. “There are a lot of different people out there voting and they don’t get a chance to see her play, they’re just looking at her statistics, so you just never know. But statistics speak for themselves.”
Williams ends her sophomore campaign averaging 25.4 points, 18.2 rebounds and just over four blocks per game. She tops the nation in Division III in points, is second in rebounding, and fourth in blocks. Her 28 double-doubles in 29 contests is also the nation’s best.
During Friday’s 67-56 First Round victory over Valley Forge, despite what she labeled as “not such a great game”, Williams set the new single-season Old Dominion Athletic Conference (ODAC) record for points scored, ending with 736, besting the mark of legendary Yellow Jacket standout Megan Silva Schultz, who scored 714 points in the 2005-06 season. Her 527 rebounds on the season shatters the former ODAC mark of 489 set in 1989-90 by Stacey Carr of Virginia Wesleyan.
This team, however, doesn’t win 23 games merely with the power and presence of Kelly Williams. Woods emerged as a double-double machine and defensive standout this season. Wisner and Wade became more confident, smarter players from November to March. Elise Knobloch and Becca Arrington gain immeasurable experience from their freshman seasons.
The lone senior, Teal Reynolds, who will graduate with a double major in political science and international studies, will take her savvy and intelligence to the United States Army, where she will be commissioned as a Military Intelligence and Field Artillery Second Lieutenant.