BY Rob Witham
After watching a six-point lead slip away, Randolph-Macon women’s basketball found themselves playing defense in the final minute of the 2018 Old Dominion Athletic Conference Women’s Championship in a 68-68 tie. An entire season of practices, games, road trips, and ignoring naysayers came down to a final 47 seconds.
Top-seeded Emory and Henry was setting up a play to retake the lead when suddenly, guard Chloe Harris lost control of the basketball, watching it helplessly go out of bounds. Yellow Jacket head coach Carroll LaHaye called timeout. The stage was set.
Two passes into their possession, Jayla Wade found herself with the basketball on the right wing. Showing absolutely no fear, Wear drove past her defender, launched a floater on the right baseline and, with 24 seconds left, watched the ball bounce off the rim and straight through the net for a 70-68 lead.
“I saw the lane, and I knew I could get past her, so I took it,” Wade said of the play, and shot, that would clinch the ninth ODAC Women’s Basketball Championship in Randolph-Macon history. After the Wasps missed two shots in the waning seconds, Wade got the basketball and was fouled with 1.3 seconds left. She calmly stepped to the line, and, in a season where poor team free throw shooting has cost the Yellow Jackets games on more than one occasion, she sank a pair to send Randolph-Macon fans into celebration mode.
The 72-68 final was the culmination of an ODAC season which saw Randolph-Macon, a team with just ten players on the roster, overcome doubts from prognosticators and outsiders, find different ways to win, and continue to prove that the Yellow Jackets are not “The Kelly Williams Show.”
While she will be a favorite to win National Player of The Year honors in Division III Women’s Basketball, now both the leading scorer and rebounder in the nation, Williams has never done it alone. And, when you ask her, her personal accomplishments pale in comparison to what matters most. When told she had set the ODAC single-tournament records for total points (79) and total rebounds (60), while appreciative, she quickly deferred.
“You know, I’m not trying to beat records, that’s not the goal, obviously. Winning the tournament was the goal,” Williams said after the game. “That’s been the goal all year. So the records you beat along the way, that’s a nice thing, but the best thing is winning the championship.”
Williams, who played high school basketball at Halifax Academy in Garysburg, North Carolina, climbed the ladder to snip the net for the very first time.
“I have absolutely not cut down the net. In high school, we were too cheap to cut nets because then you have to replace it,” Williams noted wryly.
LaHaye, however, has significant experience in cutting a net down, proudly climbing the ladder at the Salem Civic Center, using the scissors to finish the job, swinging the net in celebration while pointing at all the Randolph-Macon fans cheering her on, then tossing it down to her team, a team that has shown a special camaraderie since opening night back in November when they knocked off a nationally-ranked team in Marymount.
“One of the things I have noticed is the unity of this team,” LaHaye explained. “I think when teams have unity, the trust is unbelievable. A player gets out on the court and knows she can be herself, that her teammates trust her, have confidence. And that’s something we’ve preached from a coaching perspective, that is trusting each other, have confidence in one another, stay focused and determined, and I think they have really bought into that.”
That unity, that focus would be put to its greatest test of the season against Emory and Henry, who won the lone regular season meeting between the two 84-76 on February 3rd in Ashland in part due to pressure, and to the Yellow Jackets’ struggles at the free throw line. To get to the finals, Randolph-Macon put in a 31-for-46 performance at the charity stripe to outlast Virginia Wesleyan 65-62 in the ODAC Semifinal on Saturday.
After racing out to an early 23-11 lead, Randolph-Macon saw Emory and Henry turn on the full court pressure, unleashing wave after wave of double teams. Waves turned into turnovers, and the lead was down to five after a period at 25-20. In a 26-second stretch in the second period, the Wasps hit a shot, forced a backcourt turnover, scored on a layup, then did it again. A 27-22 deficit turned into a 28-27 Wasps lead. LaHaye called timeout to calm down her team.
The lead went back and forth for the rest of the half, an Elise Knobloch three-pointer giving Randolph-Macon the halftime lead at 39-38. The team knew more pressure was coming. They committed twelve more turnovers in the second half, 26 for the contest. But they never quit pushing, breaking the press enough to get Williams going underneath. She and Charlotte Woods played with two fouls a good portion of the second half as both drew their second fouls in the second period.
Williams distinctly remembered doing this last year at the ODAC Tournament, and coming out of the game for a time. This year, LaHaye’s confidence in how Williams could handle herself with two early fouls led her to play all forty minutes. She never committed a third.
“She’s played me more with two fouls. You have to know that it’s important for you to maybe just a get a rebound, not so important to crash the offensive boards and end up with that third foul,” Williams noted. “Maybe someone else can step up in those times.”
And step up they did. In a year where casual observers look at box scores and wonder how sore Williams’ shoulders are, allegedly carrying the team, the keen observer sees the difference makers. Knobloch hit not one, but two, key three-pointers in that second period. In eighteen minutes, she scored eight points and grabbed four big rebounds.
Kelsey Wisner struggled from the field, but logged critical minutes helping break the press to find Williams and others for easy scores inside, hurting physically after a hard hit late in the fourth period. Lone senior Teal Reynolds confidently controlled the ball, scored nine points and had four steals. Woods quietly logged a 13-rebound performance to go with eight points.
And then there was Wade, the junior guard whose speed was evident all afternoon and on every square inch of the court, from knocking cross court passes out of bounds to helping lead the charge on a perimeter defense that forced Emory and Henry into a 1-for-19 shooting performance from the three-point line.
Perhaps Randolph-Macon’s finest hour was a five minute plus stretch holding the Wasps scoreless, able to turn a 62-60 deficit into that 68-62 lead, knowing there would be one final Emory and Henry push. There was, but after taking the punch, Wade led the final charge, which led all the way to the championship trophy.
Credit was also give to the players didn’t see the court Sunday, from Leara Shumate, who has seen playing time this year, and two others who filled a special void and created a key element to the maturation of this group of Yellow Jackets.
“The uniqueness of this championship is everyone counted us out at the start of the season. We had only eight players, and had two players join us, Brie Zimmerman and Ashlynn Green,” LaHaye explained. “They just wanted to be part of our team and help us out, and as a result of that, we were able to go five-on-five every day in practice. They gave as much to the team as every player who gets minutes gives.”
Now, this memorable group of ten get to not only play in the NCAA Women’s Division III Championship, they will host a First and Second Round pod on Friday and Saturday. The Yellow Jackets will host Valley Forge in their opening game, looking for the program’s first NCAA Tournament win since 2011. Christopher Newport and Haverford will play in the other First Round game on Friday, with winners meeting in the Second Round on Saturday at Crenshaw Gymnasium.
“We have demonstrated a confidence and poise in these positions all year long, and those 20-plus games have prepared us for this game. Our coaching staff have preached this kind of mindset of confidence and being strong for your teammates and yourself,” Reynolds said. “We knew this game would be a fight. Championship games are always a fight. They’re not games.”
The Yellow Jackets will be ready for another fight in Crenshaw come Friday night.
NOTES: Out of nine ODAC Championships, this is the third time Randolph-Macon has won the title while not being the top seed (2003, 2014)…Williams’ new single-tournament mark of 79 points broke the old record set by former Randolph-Macon great Megan Silva (Schultz), who scored 78 in the 2006 tourney….for ticket information for this weekend’s NCAA Tournament play at Crenshaw Gymnasium, visit RMCAthletics.com or call 752-7223.