Ty Daubert (@TyDaubert)
After two disappointing, high-scoring losses to start the year, West Chester took advantage of a low-scoring affair for its first victory.
WCU opened the season last weekend in West Virginia, dropping games to Glenville State and West Virginia State while allowing an average of 103 points. The Rams’ defense was the clear shortcoming in the two matchups, and the team knew it needed to make significant improvements to find success.
The defensive performance was a major highlight as WCU took Chestnut Hill down to the wire, 57-53, Sunday at Sorgenti Arena.
“Obviously, our first win of the season is special,” Rams coach Kiera Wooden said. “We’re hoping this is the first of many, but the team worked so hard over the past week, specifically on the defensive end.”
West Chester's Michelle Kozicki had 18 points and 10 rebounds in Sunday's win over Chestnut Hill. (Photo: Ty Daubert/CoBL)
Fueled by an 18-point performance from sophomore forward Michelle Kozicki, West Chester came up with timely baskets and stops alike in the fourth quarter to escape with the road win. And following a rough weekend to begin the year, coming away on top was only more rewarding.
“Coming out with two losses in the beginning was a little bit tough,” Kozicki said. “But we said we had to come together, and that’s exactly what we did. It feels so good to be on this team and to win together.”
Kozicki, a transfer after playing for Division I La Salle last season, brought the energy on both ends for the Rams throughout the game, scoring, defending and grabbing 10 rebounds — all key factors in batting against CHC until the end.
“She’s our spark plug,” Wooden said. “She plays so hard, she has so much intensity and she goes so hard — even to a fault sometimes. She just plays so hard every possession on offense and defense. She never takes any plays off, so it was great to see her hard work translate into game action and for her to be successful on the court.”
On a day when WCU standout point guard Leah Johnson never found a rhythm — going an uncharacteristic 2-for-12 from the floor — the offensive contributions from Kozicki and center Emily McAteer (Garnet Valley) proved to be crucial for the Rams. McAteer, another Division I transfer from Loyola, Md., scored 12 points and grabbed 10 rebounds after a strong first half to help complement Kozicki’s performance.
“I think that probably, in her first two years, if Leah was struggling, I don’t know that we would pull out a win,” Wooden said. “I think that we have enough pieces surrounding her now, and I think that she has enough confidence in the pieces surrounding her, that she knows she doesn’t have to do it by herself.”
Matched up against Chestnut Hill center Emily Chmiel (C.B. East), who scored 14 points for the Griffins, McAteer brushed off early struggles to put together a big end to the first half as the Rams went ahead, 21-20. She scored nine points before the break, showing off her versatility inside and beyond the arc.
“I think once she got acclimated to their size and figuring out what reads she could make, she started getting points in the paint,” Wooden said. “Then we started trying to counter that with having her on the 3-point line. She’s a stretch ‘5’ — she can shoot the 3s, she can attack off the dribble drive, she can finish in the paint. Her scoring like that, particularly in the first half, was key for us.”
The Griffins made a third-quarter push behind Chmiel to take a 41-35 lead with 10 minutes to play. A back-and-forth fourth quarter then ensued, with the Rams pulling away in the final seconds as the defense powered a 9-1 run.
Kozicki scored the final of her 12 fourth-quarter points on a layup to give West Chester a three-point cushion with 20 seconds remaining. Needing one more stop to seal it, WCU locked in as Briana Seltzer absorbed contact from CHC ball-handler Lauren Crim. The referees conversed for a moment before calling a charge.
“The pause was probably the longest three seconds of my life,” Kozicki joked.
The big defensive play forced Chestnut Hill to play the fouling game, effectively putting it out of reach for the Rams. It was a stark contrast to the way the team’s first two games panned out, but West Chester gladly accepted the development.
With a matchup against Jefferson coming up on Saturday, West Chester will look to continue using the formula that worked on Sunday while also knowing that there’s more potential to be found for the offense as Johnson gets back to the form that saw her averaging 25 points in the first two games. Figuring out the right blend between the two will be key as the Rams move forward.
“The first one is always a big one, and we’re hoping this can be a building block,” Wooden said. “From here, it’s a matter of finding our identity. I thought we were going to be a team that could flat out go out and score. But we found out today we can figure out a way to win by grinding it out on the defensive end. I think we can hang our hat on that and build from there.”