There’s no substitute for experience, especially in an NCAA tournament. Friday night at DuFour Center, the Catholic University women applied lessons learned from an unsuccessful appearance in the tournament last year to grind out the first NCAA victory in program history, 52-44 over Cabrini (Pa.).
Holding Cabrini scoreless during a 6-minute, 15-second stretch late in the game, Catholic (27-1) won with defense and the clutch offensive work of frontcourt seniors Kelli Josephsen (12 points, 11 rebounds, three steals) and Katarina Owunna (11 points, eight rebounds) to advance to Saturday’s round of 32.
It was a departure from last year’s 63-54 loss to Muhlenberg in the program’s first NCAA tournament game.
“We probably hit a little bit of a panic situation last year,” coach Matt Donohue said. “Tonight, especially later down the stretch when that game was really on the line, we really relied on our senior leadership and that veteran presence. They’ve been through that battle before and I think they learned a lot from it.”
It will be a quick turnaround for the Cardinals who face Widener (22-5) Saturday at 5 p.m., less than 20 hours after wrapping up Friday’s victory. In the first game of Friday’s doubleheader, Widener defeated FDU-Florham 56-52.
“It’s gonna be tough but we practice really hard every day,” senior captain Jenny McGann said. “I think the adrenaline and the whole experience is going to help us out.”
Riding a 19-game winning streak, Cabrini (24-4) was a daunting first-round foe for the Landmark Conference champions and led by as many as six points in the first half and four early in the second behind junior Annie Rivituso (16 points, five rebounds).
But the 6-foot Josephson scored the first eight points of the half for Catholic. After her layup with 15:32 left gave the Cardinals a 31-29 lead, they never again trailed. But CU couldn’t shake the Crusaders until the decisive final seven minutes.
Applying tight man-to-man pressure, CU harassed Cabrini into nine straight missed shots. Meanwhile, Catholic reeled off eight straight points. Josephsen ignited the surge with a baseline jumper, Owunna made two inside buckets, and senior Jill Woerner (nine points, four assists) converted a reverse layup circus shot to give the Cardinals a 49-39 edge with two minutes left.
“That one, in a tough situation, flipped it up, I was just hoping it would hit the rim for somebody to get a rebound,” Woerner said. “Somehow it went in.”
The win was all about defense. Cabrini, seeking its first NCAA tournament win in seven appearances, hit 34.5 percent of its shots, including 2 of 13 from beyond the arc. CU also forced 19 turnovers.
“For us it was really about taking the paint away from them,” Donohue said. “[At halftime], we talked about communicating, holding down our back side on the defense, not allowing those one-on-one isolation plays. Our women adjusted very well in the second half.”
It also was a victory about balance. Josephsen, a transfer from Division II St. Anselm (N.H.) last year, is the lowest-scoring starter, averaging 8.0 points per game, but has played a big role in the postseason. In the Cardinals Landmark Conference victory last week over Scranton, Josephsen scored eight straight points to turn a four-point deficit into a four-point lead.
“She’s the definition of a glue kid,” Donohue said. “We were a team on the rise. When we added her into the mix, that’s the moment we took the next step in the evolution of our program.”
Friday night was another step in the evolution. The Cardinals hope to make another to the Sweet 16 on Saturday.
Note: The women’s game will precede the NCAA opener for the Catholic men (24-3) who take on the College of Staten Island (22-5), which reached the Sweet 16 round last year. CU is in the tournament for the first time since 2007 and is led by seniors Chris Kearney (17.0 ppg, 7.1 rpg) and Shawn Holmes (16.1 ppg, 3.2 apg). Staten Island is powered by 6-11 junior Dylan Bulger (10.5 ppg, 8.4 rpg) and junior guards Bloochy Magloire (21.7 ppg, 5.0 rpg) and Jonathon Chadwick-Myers (17.7 ppg, 3.7 apg).