By MATT ROSENFELD
After coming up one point short of an Atlantic 10 championship last season, the Fordham women’s basketball team made sure that did not happen again this year. The Rams defeated Dayton 63-51 to cap off an amazing tournament run, win their first Atlantic 10 title in history and guarantee themselves one of the coveted spots in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1994.
“It’s an unreal experience,” senior captain Abigail Corning said of the moment the clock ticked down to zero. “It’s crazy to be able to hug your teammates and know that you started back in April when last season ended and pushed through so much and to have it pay off.”
It was indeed a long road for Fordham to get all the way back to the NCAA tournament. Just six short years ago, the program did not win a single game, compiling an 0-29 record on the year. Just like many Fordham sports in the mid 2000’s, futility was the norm.
But, all that changed in 2011 when Fordham hired Stephanie Gaitley as its new head coach.
“I remember telling Father McShane when I took the job, I thought that by year three we’d be respectable,” Gaitley said. “Did I think we’d win the conference championship? I’d be lying if I said we would. His biggest thing was wanting us to matter.”
The Rams have never mattered more than they do now.
After defeating St. Joseph’s in its regular season finale, Fordham secured a spot in the quarterfinals of the A-10 tournament, awaiting the winner of the game between Duquesne and Rhode Island. Naturally, Duquesne won, granting Fordham a rematch against the only team to beat them twice this season.
“After we beat St. Joe’s, the first thing I said in the locker room was that this gets us another shot at Duquesne,” Gaitley said.
It is never easy to beat a team twice in a season, let alone three times, and unfortunately for Duquesne, they would find that out at the worst possible time. In a game that would see both teams shoot just 30 percent from the field, it was Fordham’s defense that would carry it to the semifinals, taking the quarterfinal matchup 44-41.
“I think we were all locked in defensively,” Gaitley said. “One of our slogans last year was ‘We Believe’ and this year I said the T-shirt is going to be ‘We Believed’ with a big D because we believed that the defense was the difference.”
In their two previous matchups this year, Duquesne scored 65 and 60, and the Dukes averaged just over 68 points per game on the year overall. Holding Duquesne to just 41 points was the first step in Fordham’s journey to the top of the A-10.
The next step would come on Saturday, March 8, when the Rams faced St. Bonaventure in the semifinals. The Bonnies beat Fordham earlier in the year, 74-67 in Olean, N.Y. Little did the Bonnies know, they would not even sniff 74 points in this game.
Though the Rams’ defense was great in the quarterfinals, it was not close to its peak ability. Fordham had by far their most impressive defensive effort of the year against St. Bonaventure, winning 73-32 in a game that was never close. The 32 points tied the lowest amount Fordham let up on the year, matching the 32 points it gave up against Illinois State back in December. However, this one was much more impressive.
Fordham held St. Bonaventure to just four points in the entire first half while scoring 38 themselves. The Bonnies, who average 61 points per game on about 43 percent shooting, shot two of 25 from the field in the first half, and were out of the game before it started.
“We were able to talk at halftime about other games where we didn’t put people away,” Gaitley said. “I thought the first five minutes [of the second half] are what set the tone, and I thought once we jumped on them again, I knew they were done.”
The Rams could not have been riding any higher than they were heading into the championship game against Dayton, a third team that had beaten them earlier in the year.
On Sunday morning, Fordham went into Richmond Coliseum ready to make history, and they walked out champions.
The two teams played close for the entire first half. Dayton jumped ahead early, but Fordham would not go away, always matching Dayton scoring runs with ones of their own. Dayton had a 24-18 lead late in the first half, but back to back threes from Corning and freshman Hannah Missry tied the game and brought momentum to the Rams’ side.
Both offenses traded scoring possessions as the half ran down, and the Flyers would take a one-point lead into halftime.
“We were right where we wanted to be [at halftime],” junior forward Emily Tapio said when the team returned home late Sunday night. “It’s zero-zero every half for us, so we just came out and wanted to play our brand of basketball.”
There is no doubt at this point in the season that defense is the focal point for Fordham, and once again, defense is what came through for the Rams when they needed it most.
A bit more than halfway through the second half, Fordham, led by graduate student Mary Nwachukwu’s eight points, went off on a 13-4 run that gave it a six point lead, 50-44. Then, the lockdown began.
Dayton would not score in the final five and a half minutes of the game, and Fordham would take their first A-10 crown back to the Bronx.
“[Winning the A-10 championship] gives me such a sense of pride because it’s just so hard to do,” Gaitley said. “I can’t even describe it, it’s just still very surreal.”
Not only did they hold Dayton to 32 points under their season average, but the Rams’ defense set an A-10 tournament record, allowing only 41.3 points per game over the three games.
“We played focused defense,” Corning said. “Dayton scoring way below their season average, holding St. Bonaventure to four points in the first half, it all really showed our focus.”
Corning was also named Most Outstanding Player of the tournament.
“I’m really humbled by [the award],” Corning said. “All the hours I put in with the coaches, all the hours I put in on my own, to have that all pay off is just crazy and it’ll be something I remember for the rest of my life.”
Fordham will find out on Monday who and where they will play for their first round game in the NCAA Tournament. Regardless, these Rams are going there to win.
“This team, they know they can win,” Gaitley said. “I don’t think it’s going to be that far-fetched to win a first round game.”