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USciences women ready to go Dancing for the last time

03/08/2022, 10:15am EST
By Kevin Callahan

Kevin Callahan (@CP_KCallahan)

In its last season of basketball, the unnerved and unwavering University of the Sciences women’s team made it the best.

Sure, there are still games to play – the biggest yet of this already memorable season – in the NCAA Division II tournament, but no matter the final score in that final game for this elite program, this season has been the greatest for the Devils because of the enormity of emotions they had to overcome and the sheer sadness of what they endured.

Jackie Hartzell (above) and USciences won the CACC championship in their final season of play. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

“If they felt extra pressure or any kind of emotion with it being the last year, they never showed it,” said Jackie Hartzell, the admirable and accomplished USciences coach. “I think the one thing that you could say about our team is that we are incredibly tough and resilient and the players just really wanted to win, over the last couple of games especially.

“But, I don't think they let the emotion get to them. So that's why I try not to be emotional. Yeah. I mean, I really try to take the emotion out of it, but that's a lot easier said than done.”

Unimaginable actually.

Like hearing the steady beating of a war drum in the distance, the players not only had to play under the encroaching pall of knowing this was the last season for the program, but also the uncertainty of their own future on the court sped closer with every fast break.

And, with each passing practice and game plan, the coaching staff performed at an elite level while not knowing their future either. Remember, as much as Hartzell and her staff love coaching, this is their job. It is how they feed their families.

Yes, with each dribble, the program stepped closer to the gallows since June when Sciences and Saint Joseph’s University announced an agreement to integrate into one university, which meant the country’s first college of pharmacy was being swallowed and its sports teams shuttered.

“We were coming into the season facing a little bit of adversity,” Hartzell said with the steady professionalism of a surgeon.

Still, the Devils climbed to the top on the way to see the executioner.

On Sunday, Sciences earned an automatic bid to the NCAA Division II tournament by capturing their third Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference (CACC) title in five years with a 53-44 win over Jefferson at Caldwell.

“I guess in a way there was a little bit of pressure to end on a good note … I mean we couldn't have asked for a better ending,” Hartzell said.

Perkiomen Valley product Taylor Hamm (L) is the Devil's leading rebounder this season (8.3/game), while also scoring 7.2 ppg. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

They not only earned this special ending, but they deserved to go out in glory.

This sweet swansong continues as the No. 3 seed in the East Region and a matchup against sixth-seeded Le Moyne in the first round at noon Friday at Southern New Hampshire. They won't the be only local team there -- both Jefferson and Chestnut Hill will join them in Manchester (N.H.).

 “All season, it's been one game at a time, but obviously you get to this point in the season and every team you're playing is a very good team,” Hartzell said about this week’s prep for the Dolphins (17-7). “So you're going to have to play well to win.”

The Devils (23-4) are the only team in the East Region and one of 12 teams nationally to qualify for the last five NCAA Tournaments (excluding the COVID-restricted 2021 NCAA Tournament).

Impressively, Sciences is one of 10 teams nationally to win a game in each of the previous three NCAA Tournaments (2017, 2018 and 2019).

Of course, the Devils aim to make it four. But first Sciences had to qualify for the 64-team tourney under the increasing weight of finality and the backdrop of a foggy future.

“We talked the last couple of weeks and especially the last couple of days about appreciating every moment and enjoying it because these are the moments you're going to look back on,” Hartzell said.

“And I really do think that they've been trying to take it all in and our team is very close. They really like each other a lot. And I really do think that they've just made the most of these last couple of games.”

Kendall Keyes (above) is USciences' second-leading scorer this season, at 10.4 ppg, starting all 27 games. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

The last home game on their campus in the University City section was a 63-60 loss on a late 3-pointer to Chestnut Hill, which also qualified for the NCAA tourney, in a matchup for the regular season championship.

“It was a disappointing loss, but I mean everything happens for a reason and it worked out in that we were able to win the conference championship, which is the ultimate goal every year,” Hartzell said, punctuating her steely positivity.

“It probably was the most emotional on Senior Day, not necessarily because it was Senior Day, but more because it was the last regular-season home game in program history, the last ever doubleheader with our men's team,” Hartzell said. “So that was emotional.

“And then we ended up getting a home quarter-final, playoff game and that one was extremely emotional knowing for sure that it was going to be the last game ever on our court,” she added about the conference tourney.

“To be able to go out with a win on our court was great and there was definitely a lot of emotion before and after the game, a lot of tears,” Hartzell added.

Jess Huber, a senior guard from North Penn High School, claimed the Tournament MVP after scoring 12 points in the championship game. Sophomore guard Isla Brennan was also named to the All-Tournament team after tying Huber with a game-high 12 points.

Shannon May (above) is one of two graduate students on the Devils' roster. (Photo Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Shannon May, who was originally going to be a graduate assistant coach this year but then decided to use her COVID year of eligibility, was also selected to the All-Tournament team. The fifth-year senior guard from Archbishop Wood collected nine rebounds and two steals.

Taylor Hamm, a junior forward from Perkiomen Valley, led all players with 13 boards, while junior guard Kendall Keyes was also in double-figures with 11 points.

“When the final buzzer went off [...] watching them jumping up and down and celebrating and also going into the locker room after the game, they're getting sprayed with their water bottles and all that and seeing how happy they were, I mean, they earned it,” Hartzell said.

They sure did. Hopefully, their future will be as kind.

The players with eligibility could transfer, but the entire roster is science majors. They chose USciences not just for basketball. And most of them are in doctorate programs, in majors where they can't leave.

“We may have one or two players who are looking to play after the season, but for the most part, they're all going to be staying at the school and just finishing it out academically,” Hartzell updated.

“So, probably 13 of our players ended their collegiate careers with a conference championship. You really can't ask for much more than that, and I think it makes it a little bit easier to handle the fact that this is their last year.”

And they will always have this:

“We celebrated our seniors,” Hartzell said about Senior Day. “Our underclassmen always get gifts for seniors and then our seniors got gifts for the underclassmen since they're never going to have a Senior Day.”

As meaningful as this touching Senior Day ceremony was, the best gift they all gave each other under duress this entire season was how they played with enviable poise mixed with passion - how they played for each other. No one can take that away. No one can break that bond.

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