Konner Metz (@konner_metz)
Thursday afternoon was a sight all too reminiscent of last March for La Salle, as a second-round defeat in the Atlantic 10 Championship ending their tournament dreams well short of the league trophy.
Despite a seasoned team and high hopes to make noise in the A-10 tourney, the No. 8 Explorers couldn't get over the hump, falling to No. 9 George Mason 64-58 at the Chase Fieldhouse in Wilmington, Del.
La Salle's Kayla Spruill (above, in Dec.) finished her career fifth in the program history in scoring. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
“We’re disappointed,” head coach Mountain MacGillivray said in the postgame presser. “It’s winning and misery, that’s the way it goes.”
Last year, the Explorers had a nearly identical roster, but similarly got kicked out of the tournament by a lower seed, No. 12 George Washington. But there’s one stark difference between the two disappointments that sticks out.
This time around, graduate student forward Kayla Spruill walked off the court knowing it would be her last time in a La Salle uniform.
In the days of transfers galore, Spruill was a five-year member of the program, knocking down the most three-pointers (220) in La Salle history, finishing her career fifth in program history with 1,629 points.
“Through her five years, she has been an incredible woman to be around, an incredible personality, and one heck of a basketball player,” MacGillivray said of Spruill.
The 6-footer from Baltimore, Md. was La Salle’s biggest source of offense Thursday, pouring in a team-high 15 points and snagging 10 rebounds for a double-double. She hit a couple threes in the first half to keep the Explorers within reach of the Patriots.
But it wasn’t enough, as Sonia Smith had 18 points (8-for-8 FTs) for George Mason. Allowing 20 offensive rebounds and committing 17 turnovers proved to be too much for La Salle to overcome – George Mason had 19 points off of those offensive boards and 22 points off of the Explorers’ giveaways.
Still, an emotional and subdued Spruill was able to reflect on her experience as a whole in the waning moments of her career.
“It’s meant a lot, especially coming in not really knowing if you’re going to bond with your teammates,” Spruill said. “I think, like freshman year, I was kind of unsure about everything, but I kept coming back. And I think what kept me going was the love for my teammates, and that’s what made me want to play even harder.”
MacGillivray’s squad had countless moments where they closed within one or two possessions during the fourth quarter, but each time it looked like the momentum would swing, George Mason snatched it right back.
Freshman forward Mia Jacobs (5 pts, 7 reb) converted on an and-one midway through the fourth quarter to put the score at 46-all, bringing new life to the La Salle bench. But their opponent rattled off five consecutive points, and it was back to square one.
Spruill hit a tough turnaround jumper with under four minutes left to close the gap to 53-50, but Jacobs subsequently fouled out with her fifth personal of the day. Mason hit some free throws and a layup to extend the lead out to seven points.
La Salle again cut it to three, 61-58, with less than a minute left, but Smith drilled two free throws on the other end, and the Explorers couldn’t find another bucket. The rebounding disparity (minus-10 for the Explorers) was the clear dagger throughout the contest, MacGillivray noted.
“They dominated the boards, we knew that’s where we had to mitigate the game and they got out on top,” MacGillivray said. “20 offensive rebounds is tough to overcome.
“Real credit to their guards getting downhill and making tough two-point shots. That’s our defensive plan, we’re gonna give you two-point shots inside the arc. And they went down there and they made a lot of tough pull-ups that were contested.”
Graduate guard Molly Masciantonio stuffed the box score with six points, four rebounds, and five assists, while senior Claire Jacobs had 10 points as well. All of Masciantonio, Claire and her twin Amy Jacobs along with younger sister Mia, and junior Jaye Haynes have eligibility remaining, among others on the roster.
They’ve all experienced two similar endings the last two years, playing just one day in the A-10 tourney before being bounced. MacGillivray hopes the feeling from Thursday won’t be forgotten going into the future, as they look to improve athletically with a new class of recruits.
“I hope it’s motivation going forward,” MacGillivray said. “I think the group that is returning is strong. I think the freshman class coming in does make us a little bit stronger and more athletic, so hopefully that’ll fill some of the holes. But every season’s a new season. What we’re worried about right now is preparing for next year, getting bigger, stronger, better, faster.”
The Explorers were second in the A-10 preseason poll, and after two losses to open conference play, started to show why with five straight wins. But they teetered back and forth during the end of the winter, finishing league play smack dab in the middle at 8-7.
However, their coach noted the accomplishments that this squad did achieve, such as becoming the first group to have two consecutive winning seasons in 19 years and the first ever to have two straight winning seasons in conference.
“Obviously there were larger expectations than La Salle has had in the past with a preseason ranking really high,” MacGillivray said. “The reality is, this group went out there and took another step forward for this program…The group that’s graduating and the group right behind them have changed what’s going on with this women’s basketball program. I’m incredibly proud of them.”
Graduate transfer Charity Shears (West Virginia State) had eight points and three rebounds Thursday, and sitting next to her at the presser, her coach said she was “everything and much, much more” that the staff had imagined.
For Spruill, the sentiment was similar, for the two-time All-Big 5 Team and Atlantic-10 all-conference team selection that made a significant impact on a La Salle squad that went from 6-25 in her freshman year to 18-13 in her fifth and final campaign.
“”Kayla, I talked to her late sophomore season and I just said, did you expect to come to La Salle and be one of the best players in the A-10?” MacGillivray said.
“The beauty of what she does on the basketball court is she keeps a great perspective on everything, and it’s not the end-all and be-all of her life. But she goes out there and works her butt off every day. And she’s just consistent. I wish it was better for her. But she did her part, and it’s what she does every night. Even on the bad nights when it’s not 15 and 10, she’s doing the things that she needs to do to make us successful. It was really a joy having her for five seasons.”
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