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Tight-knit Jefferson ready for first Sweet 16 trip since 1986

03/12/2023, 11:00pm EDT
By Zak Wolf

Zak Wolf (@ZakWolf22)

After losing to Daemen College in the second round of the NCAA Tournament last season, Jefferson University women’s basketball coach Tom Shirely held a meeting with some of his players. 

Despite the success, the Rams struggled to knock down three pointers throughout the season. Shirley brought up the idea of using the transfer portal to help fix what he thought was the group’s biggest deficiency. 

His players immediately shot the idea down. Not because they were selfish or rude or didn’t think their perimeter shooting could improve, but the tight-knit team wanted to fix the solution on its own. 

“He actually brought someone in and we talked to her and she was really nice and everything. There was nothing wrong with her at all,” junior forward Haley Meinel said. “But we were just like, ‘We don’t want to mess up the team dynamic. We’re such a close team that it really translates on the court for us.”

Jefferson sophomore Sam Yencha goes up for a shot in an exhibition against Villanova earlier this season. (Photo: Jack Verdeur/CoBL File)

Jefferson hasn’t seen much improvement in its three-point shooting this season. Shirely described his team as a “1980’s” NBA team that attacks teams from inside the arch with their physicality, shooting from 12-15 feet and playing hard on defense. But the team's mentality of finding solutions on their own has helped them to a 28-4 record this season and a tournament trip at least one game further into March this year.

Jefferson's mindset since its loss last season has led the Rams back to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Women’s Division-II tournament for the first time since the program’s 1986 Final Four squad. After getting knocked out in the second round last season, the Rams have a chance to reach the Elite Eight for just the second time in program history if they defeat Assumption College on Monday at 7 p.m. in Worcester, Mass.

“They’re aware of it, they’re trying to have fun and not take it too seriously, but at the same time have a good time,” Shirley said. “They were very excited last night at just the concept of going to the Sweet 16. …We could’ve been (playing at) home if we beat the Dominican, but being on the road they can bond and be goofy, doing what kids do.”

Jefferson went 25-3 during the regular season, including a 15-1 mark in the CACC. The Rams suffered a tough defeat in the CACC conference semifinals, falling to Dominican College 72-71 in overtime. Going into the game, Jefferson already knew its place in the tournament was all but sealed, but it still left a sour taste in the team’s mouth. 

“There’s an underlying level of disappointment, but at the same time we got a chance to play again and so far we’ve made the most of it.” Shirely said. 

After getting knocked out of their conference tournament the Rams faced off against Daemen College in the first round of the NCAA tournament — a rematch of the disappointing second-round loss last season. A 27-point victory helped Jefferson advance to a matchup with Southern New Hampshire, where it used a strong second half for a 62-47 victory

The Rams, who have totaled 52 wins over the last two seasons, learned what it takes to make a deep run in the tournament in 2021-22 and with the majority of its starting lineup back, they knew they had a good chance to make an even deeper run this season.

“It’s the continuity, but also the basketball maturity,” Shirely said. “It’s like when you’re growing up with kids and you’re playing on the playground, you know where you’re going to be. …These guys know each other, they’re able to improvise out of the sets. We have certain sets and things we’re trying to accomplish, but when they don’t work or the shot clock runs down they find each other and they make plays.”

Despite the pressure of a deep postseason run, part of Jefferson’s routine is to not focus on basketball as much. Shirely learned from the experience on the road last season. Teams are allotted 85 minutes of practice time ahead of the games. Shirely explained people told him to get extra practice in at local high schools to prepare. Last season he tried this with his team, but said it “beat the kids up”, so this year instead his team is focusing on having fun off the floor. 

Shirley took the team bowling to see who was the best bowler out of the group. Meinel said Emma Kuczynski is the team's best bowler, recording a score of over 180 when they played this week. To blow off more steam, the team went to the movies to see Woody Harrelson’s new movie “Champions”. Meinel said the road trips help the team bond and become closer.

She noted that chemistry displays itself often on the defensive end, where Jeferson sets the tone. 

The Rams’ effort helps them wear teams out in the second half. Sometimes they’ll start slow, but they'll play their best basketball over the last 20 minutes. Jefferson only allowed eight fourth-quarter points to Southern New Hampshire, helping the Rams close the game out. 

Meinel, a Central Bucks South product,  is the tone-setter for the Rams’ defense. She ​​was named the CACC Defensive Player of the Year earlier this winter. The junior led the Rams in their win over Southern New Hampshire with a game-high 24 points, while also setting a career high in steals with 10. 

The 5-10 forward leads the Rams in scoring with nearly 16 points per game, but what makes them so difficult to guard is their ability to hurt teams with different players. Cassie Murphy (12.8 ppg) and Sam Yencha (11.2 ppg) are also in double figures with Morgan Robinson just missing the mark (9.7 ppg).

“We have four core kids and collectively on any given night you can’t stop all four of them.” Shirely said. 

On Monday, Jefferson takes on the top seed in the East Region, Assumption College, which comes in sporting a 26-5 record. Shirely said the team watched Assumption play twice this past weekend, mentioning the Greyhounds have a lot of size and a couple of knock down shooters. 

Shirely explained he’s not a fan of going over every single set his opponents run. He’s more focused on tendencies from other players, figuring out which hand they like finishing with, whether they drive or like to shoot the ball from the outside. Shirely doesn’t want to get caught up in every single little detail explaining. He said he gives his team a board stroke and brush of what the other team does and then they play. 

For Jefferson, it’s simple. If the Rams win, they’re in the Elite Eight for the first time in almost four decades. If they lose it’s the end of the road on a historic season. 

“It would mean the world to us,” Meinel said “We’re a really hard working team and we’ve been playing since September. It’s something that we’ve been really striving to do as a team and for our coaches as well.”


Owen McCue assisted with reporting for this story

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