Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
WILMINGTON — The 2022-23 regular season already represented a step forward from a year ago for the St. Joe’s women.
Improving their postseason outcome from a year ago, well, that’ll require just a few more wins.
Mackenzie Smith (above) had 17 points as St. Joe's advanced to the A-10 quarterfinal. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
The Hawks took their first step towards equaling (or bettering) their Atlantic 10 Tournament semifinals appearance from last season, the tournament’s sixth seed finishing strong to take down No. 11 Davidson 64-53 on Thursday evening at Chase Fieldhouse.
“Very, very proud of the way our team came out, very focused, I thought defensively we set the tone in the beginning,” St. Joe’s coach Cindy Griffin said. “(Davidson) gave us a run, they certainly did, but the relentlessness of this team and the selflessness of this team came out today.”
Once again, it was the St. Joe’s youth that led the way. Sophomore Mackenzie Smith led the Hawks (20-9) in both points (17) and rebounds (8), joined by her classmate Talya Brugler (15 points) and freshman Laura Ziegler (13) in double figures.
It’s a trio that has the future looking bright on Hawk Hill, though the light isn’t out on the present, either.
“We really love each other, everything we do is for each other,” Smith said, referring to the team as a whole. “We were waiting for this moment forever, and it’s finally here, so we’re here to prove what we can do.”
The Hawks’ 20th win of the season represents a seven-win improvement from a year ago, though they only improved their Atlantic 10 record from 7-8 to 9-7, good enough for a one-seed bump in the A-10 tournament.
Talya Brugler (above) was named to the Atlantic 10 First Team as a sophomore. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
It was a year ago in this building that they upset No. 2 Rhode Island in the quarterfinals to make it to the league’s final four, where they lost to eventual champs UMass. They’ll now face No. 3 Saint Louis on Friday night, a potential semifinal waiting Saturday afternoon against either Rhode Island or George Washington.
St. Joe’s and Saint Louis only played once this season: a 71-47 SJU home win on Jan. 7, but the Billikens have won eight of their last nine.
Making it back to the semifinals would undoubtedly mark this season a step forward for Griffin and the Hawks, who hadn’t had a 20-win season since 2013-14, but they — along with everyone else still alive this time of year — have their sights set higher. Brugler made it clear what the expectations are when she answered a question about what they learned from last year’s run.
“We need to take care of our bodies a little more after each game,” Brugler said. “We’re going to be here for a lot of games, we expect to be playing here on Sunday [for the championship], so that’s four games in four days, doing things off the court that can help us recover.”
Thursday’s second-round game swung on a 16-0 St. Joe’s run across the third and fourth quarters, which broke open a game that had been tight since early in the second.
It began with St. Joe’s up 36-33 with 3:54 left in the third and ended with them up 52-33 with 8:01 to play, the lead eventually reaching 20 with 5:28 left. The Hawks stopped giving up offensive rebounds to Davidson and stopped turning it over, their two big issues on the evening, and suddenly found themselves with one transition opportunity after another.
Cindy Griffin (above) won 20 games for the first time in nine years. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Smith and Ziegler helped get the run started with back-to-back 3-pointers, while Brugler, junior guard Olivia Mullins (8 points), sophomore guard Julia Nystrom (6 points) and senior forward Jaden Walker (3 points) all chipped in during the stretch.
“I think we were doing a better job of getting stops on defense,” Brugler said, “and that momentum from our defensive end was shifting to the offense, which was helping us get open shots or just run in transition and get the looks that we were going for.”
St. Joe’s had a relatively easy time against Davidson when the two met in mid-February, using a 24-11 second quarter to cruise to a 72-56 win. The Hawks controlled the glass 35-19 in that one, getting a career-high 34 points from Brugler, no one else in double figures.
“I didn’t anticipate them to guard me single-coverage in the post, because the last time we played them, they did that and it didn’t work out very well,” she said. “I had a feeling that they were double in and I was going to be able to kick it out to my teammates, but they had really strong doubles into the post on myself and on Laura as well.”
It looked like the rematch might go similarly when Brugler scored five quick points as St. Joe’s jumped out to an 11-1 lead, but Davidson wasn’t ready to go away that easily with its season on the line. Trailing by eight after one quarter (13-5), the Wildcats used a 15-2 spurt to go up five late in the third, though the Hawks responded to take a 24-22 lead into the break.
“I think any positive momentum swing going into halftime is beneficial for any group,” she said, “but for us, it set the tone of ‘we’re here, and we’re here to get it done,’ so we keep pushing forward.”
Davidson ended up out-rebounding St. Joe’s 31-27, including an 11-3 edge on the offensive glass, and forced St. Joe’s to turn it over 14 times. What most concerned Griffin was a 2-of-11 showing from the 3-point arc, which didn’t cost them in this game but won’t be enough production from the outside to open up the inside for the Hawks’ impressive front line.
They compensated by forcing 17 Wildcats turnovers and holding them to 40% from the floor (22-of-55), defending without fouling, as Davidson attempted just eight foul shots, making four.
“Offensively, we shot 53% which was great, but a lot of those came from the inside,” Griffin said. “We would like a little bit more balance, we talked about balance, a little more balance from the outside going forward. I think that’s where we need to improve, but I thought we were really really good defensively for a long stretch of time today.”
“I think (we’re) just staying focused, enjoying this for a couple hours and then tomorrow morning, you wake up and get ready for Saint Louis,” she added. “And I think they have a lot of confidence knowing that we’ve been here, we’re playing pretty well this time of year, so just go out there and just do what we do and do it at the best level that we can and I think we feel really confident about that.”
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