College of St. Joseph's women's basketball team (#4) saw their season come to a close at Villa Maria College (#1) on Feb. 23 when they fell 69-64 in the first round of the Northeastern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference tournament.
The Vikings took the first quarter 19-13, but the Lady Saints edged Villa 18-17 in the second. At halftime, CSJ trailed just 36-31. Aliesha Thomas, who was selected to the NIAC First Team, had racked up 15 points by that point off 6-for-11 shooting from the field, including three 3-pointers. Ajaylla Rotan shot 4-for-6 in the first half for eight points and pulled down eight rebounds. Fellow forward Jayla Latham notched six rebounds, two points and two assists.
For Villa Maria, Nina Cray (NIAC Second Team) had 14 points, seven rebounds and four steals in the first half. NIAC Player of the Year Shaquana Owens tallied 12 points, four assists, three steals and two blocks.
The Vikings began the second half with a 6-0 run, taking a 42-31 lead three minutes into the third quarter. Dymond Collins was the first to score for CSJ in the second half with two free throws that halted Villa's run. Latham scored two consecutive layups for the Saints to close the quarter. Villa Maria led by as much as 15 points in the third frame, but the Lady Saints were able to close the gap and head into the fourth quarter down by nine, 51-42.
Latham netted another two points to open up the fourth quarter scoring, bringing CSJ within seven points of Villa. On the other end of the court, however, Owens made layup through a foul and was able to execute a three point play to put the Vikings back up by 10 points, 54-44. After five straight Villa points, Alexus Brooks tallied a layup while being fouled and sank the ensuing free throw to make the score 59-47.
After a missed shot on Villa's next possession, Rotan netted a jump shot off a LaShaunte White assist to bring the Lady Saints within 10. Midway through the quarter Owens converted a steal into a layup and brought the score to 61-49. She interrupted another CSJ possession with a steal and dishe the ball off to Brown who was fouled on her way up for a layup. She converted both free throws to put Villa ahead by 14.
Brooks was fouled and shot 2-for-2 from the line on the Fighting Saints' next possession. After turnovers by each team, Brown made a jump shot off an Owens assist with 3:22 left in the game. Next, Thomas pulled down a defensive rebound for CSJ and advanced the ball to Brooks for a layup, making the score 65-53. This time, Cray notched a jump shot for Villa off an Owens assist with 2:23 on the clock.
With two minutes to play, CSJ gathered an offensive rebound that resulted in a made 3-pointer by Thomas. Collins then stole the ball on the Vikings' next possession and gave the ball to Brooks. She then fed Thomas for a made jump shot to bring the Saints within nine points of tying the score, 67-58. With 50 seconds remaining, Cray scored two free throws for Villa at the other end of the court. Thomas responded with four straight points of her own - a jump shot and two made free throws earned by Villa being over the limit for fouls.
With 22 seconds remaining in regulation and the score standing at 69-62, CSJ's Madison Akins was able to collect two offensive rebounds when the Saints' last-stitch efforts to close the gap were off the mark. With five seconds remaining Akins herself made a jump shot, but it would not be enough to force overtime against the one-seed. Villa Maria's NIAC Coach of the Year recipient Al Monaco spoke about the Lady Saints' valiant effort.
"CSJ is a tough team and we had to grind this game out. They brought a lot of energy which is tough to do this late in the season. Our girls battled through some adversity and we're happy to come out with the win," Monaco said.
Ultimately, the Fighting Saints were unable to match Villa's shooting efforts. The Vikings shot 41.5 percent from the field as a team on their home court, whereas CSJ shot 37.3 percent from the field. Villa also managed 38 points off turnovers compared to 17 points off turnovers for CSJ. The Saints edged Villa in second chance points, 19-2, but were outscored 26-22 in the paint. CSJ committed 28 turnovers to the Vikings' 16.
Villa was led by Owens who recorded 23 points, 11 assist, eight rebounds, eight steals and three blocks. Cray scored 20 points and pulled down 10 rebounds. Brown had 12 points, fice rebounds and five assists.
Thomas finished with a game-high 27 points. She also tallied four rebounds, three steals and three assists. Rotan recorded one block and her first career double-double by way of 12 points and 11 rebounds. Latham had eight points, seven rebounds, two assists and one block. Collins netted five points and recorded three rebounds, two assists and one steal. Brooks notched eight points, seven rebounds and a steal of the bench for the Saints.
CSJ finished the season 11-13. Villa improved to 21-7 and head into the United States Collegiate Athletic Association's national Tournament ranked sixth overall.