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St. Joe's bounced by Saint Louis in A-10 quarterfinals

03/04/2023, 9:30am EST
By Konner Metz

Konner Metz (@konner_metz)

Midway through the third quarter Friday night, it seemed as if St. Joseph’s was in a back-and-forth battle for a second consecutive trip to the Atlantic-10 semifinals.

But in a matter of minutes, those hopes were dashed, and now the Hawks are left to wonder whether their season will continue any further.

The No. 3 Saint Louis Billikens downed No. 6 St. Joe’s 59-44 in the A-10 quarterfinals at the Chase Fieldhouse in Wilmington, Del. It leaves the Hawks, a 20-win team after their Thursday night second-round victory, wondering if they will qualify for the WNIT later this March.

“It’s certainly not the outcome that we came into this tournament looking for, but nonetheless, I’m really proud of our team and with the body of work that we’ve put together this season,” coach Cindy Griffin said in the postgame presser. “Having 20 wins is something to be really proud of. And just getting our program back to where we want it to be, which is winning and doing it the right way with the people that you really care about and that you enjoy coaching.”

St. Joe's graduate guard Katie Jekot is unsure if her career will continue after Friday's loss. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL File)

Griffin said she had heard from the WNIT before Friday’s defeat, hoping her team ends up being one of those selected. While there’s certainly no guarantee, the Hawks did sport a 9-7 A-10 mark and record non conference victories over four teams in the top 125 of the NET rankings (Penn, Vanderbilt, Temple, and Drexel).

But as for Friday, the hopes to return to the semis came to a screeching halt when the Billikens bridged the third and fourth quarters with a 12-1 run that erased a four-point St. Joe’s lead, and eventually, extended it to double digits by the 7-minute mark of the fourth.

The largest issue for the Hawks seemed to be a combination of poor ball handling and control, plus a Billikens defense that was tough to crack, only permitting two double digit scorers – sophomore guard Mackenzie Smith with 15 points and sophomore forward Talya Brugler with 14.

St. Joe’s made just six second-half field goals, and coughed it up a number of times during crucial moments in their fourth-quarter comeback attempt. 

“Their defense was stifling inside,” Griffin said. “They were in spots before we were a lot of times. And then we go 0-for-13 from three. We got 13 looks and I think for the most part, they were pretty good looks. When you’re gonna advance in a tournament like this, you gotta make some perimeter shots. And we fell short of that today.” 

“It disrupted our offense quite a bit,” Brugler said of Saint Louis’ on-ball pressure. “We weren’t getting the looks that we usually get, and it was harder to kick the ball out for inside-outside game.”

Luckily for the future of St. Joe’s basketball, young pieces are everywhere on the roster, from Brugler to Smith to freshman standout Laura Ziegler (who had 10 rebounds on Friday). On the other hand, however, graduate student and five-year starter Katie Jekot played one of her last collegiate games Friday night.

The 5-9 guard came to the program in 2017, and after a year out due to an injury, received honors during her career such as Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year and All-Big 5 Second Team last season.

Jekot had two points in 33 minutes on Friday, but her impact on the team this season and the program as a whole is immeasurable.

“Coming in my freshman year, Katie was a grad student, so we knew we were guaranteed that year together,” Brugler said. “It’s been such a blessing having her come back for her sixth year. Her leadership on the court and off the court is just impeccable. She leads all of us as underclassmen. Myself personally, she’s helped me grow as a leader.”

In Jekot’s first and second seasons on the court healthy, the Hawks won just a total of 10 conference games. After a first-round overtime loss in her third playing season at the A-10 tourney, Jekot got to experience last year’s surprising run to the semis along with this year’s sustained success.

“This year was huge for me, we had a winning season which was really great,” Jekot said. “I haven’t had one since I was a player here, but that’s the reason I came back. We have such a great group of girls, great coaches, so it’s just really important to me.”

Jekot lived through the program’s rebuild under the long-tenured Griffin, and while there’s a sizable gap in year between Jekot and many of the other pieces on the roster, chemistry wasn’t too hard to build. She averaged 4.1 assists two years ago, and 4.8 assists in each of the past two seasons.

“I’m really going to miss her passes,” Brugler said. “She always found me in spots I didn’t even think she saw me. And also, she’s just a floor general for us. We always know that everything’s going to be calm and steady on the court when Katie’s in the game.”

No matter whether Jekot and her teammates have their season extended by a postseason berth, the 20-win mark is nothing to scoff at. St. Joe’s hadn’t hit that total since the 2013-2014 season, a year in which they won their first-round NCAA tournament game.

And heading into next year, classmates Brugler (16.7 ppg this season) and Smith (14.0 ppg) will return alongside Ziegler in her second campaign (11.6 ppg and 8.9 rpg), plus soon-to-be senior guard Olivia Mullins (8.3 ppg).

Joining the roster are a trio of incoming freshmen, including two local guards: Gabby Casey (Lansdale Catholic) and Aleah Sneed (Penn Charter). The former helped her team to a state championship appearance last year, while the latter was part of the squad finishing as the PAISAA runner-ups. 6-4 Lizzy Gruber (Maine) will add size to next year’s roster.

Suffice to say, the future is bright for the Hawks, between the returning cohort that grew this year and the new additions who have experienced success at the high school level.

“That mentality of having a winner is really important for the culture because that’s what we embody and that’s what we represent,” Griffin said of the incoming class.

“I love where we are, I love the direction that we’re going. We still have a lot of youth on our roster. We’ll miss Katie in a lot of ways. But we certainly have a lot of punch coming back and a few additions, so I’m very excited about where we are and where we’re going.”

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