By Owen McCue (@Owen_McCue)
EAST FALLS — Tom Shirley gave Morgan Robinson the same wisecrack he gives every guard who comes through the program when she arrived at Jefferson University in 2019.
Every Robinson turnover or ill-fated pass was followed by a reminder from Shirley that the program's assist record was never going to be broken.
“I would always say,’ Marybeth Rogers has it, she’s going to keep it, relax,’” Shirley said.
Rogers’ career 654 assists have stood as the golden standard at Jefferson since she graduated in 1984. In his first 33 seasons as head coach of the Rams, Shirley didn’t see a player come close to the milestone.
Then came Robinson, a 5-foot-9 point guard from Kingsway High School in New Jersey determined to prove her coach wrong.
“Whenever you turn the ball over, he was like there’s a 40-year record, you’ll never break that record,” Robinson said. “I was like, I’m going to take that challenge.”
Jefferson senior Morgan Robinson is the school's career assists leader with 707 dimes. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Robinson entered her senior season with 545 career helpers, which ranked third on the all-time list and put the record well within reach. She passed Rogers' 40-year-old mark in a Jan. 6 win over Dominican and has continued to pile onto the record, currently sitting at 707 as of Jan. 30.
Jefferson 1989 grad Terry Coleman (592) and 1998 grad Monica Sortino (526) are the only other Rams’ with more than 500 career assists.
After ranking second in Division II in assists per game last season (7.4 apg), Robinson the top assist leader in the country, averaging 8.5 apg. UVA-Wise’s Caitlyn Ross is the closest to her at 6.8 apg.
“I don’t know where the skillset came from because my family they’re all shooters,” Robinson said. “But I think I was always a pass-first point guard. I’m happy when my teammates are scoring and I want to put them in a position to score. I was always big for the flashy passes or getting to the lane, people would stop me or double team me and I’d get an assist.”
She can do more than just pass though. Robinson, who has been the Team MVP in each of the past two seasons, is averaging 8.1 ppg, 5.9 rpg and 2.3 spg to go along with those 6.8 apg.
She’s 72 points away from joining the 1,000-point club and her 265 career steals place her third all-time in program history.
“Historically we’ve had more of a traditional point guard,” Shirley said. “Get us up the floor, get us into a set, score six or seven points, facilitate, but no one of her versatility. She can defend. She can rebound. We play her in the back of our zone. She obviously can pass the ball, and she’s about 70ish way from 1,000 points.”
Robinson’s father Marcus played at Coppin State. Her older brother Marcus also played at Kingsway before a career at Wilkes University. Robinson grew up playing with Marcus and his friends around Kingsway, where she added some playground elements to her game.
The high IQ of the game and the floor vision came naturally to her. It was there when Shirley first watched her with Books & Basketball and at Kingsway.
“I remember she was really crafty, she could flick the ball, she could underhand the ball,” Shirley said. “And the biggest thing about her was her perception. … Sometimes when she makes a pass, I don’t see it, and I’m watching the game. I just thought this was a kid that we can build on.”
Shirley also remembers Robinson’s lack of a left hand, something she’s improved upon each season to the point where she can carve up a defense going either way. She came in with a good mentor in Plymouth Whitemarsh product Alynna Williams, who was more of a scorer, piling up 1,795 points during her career.
After Robinson averaged 5.4 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 3.5 apg and 1.7 spg as a freshman, COVID canceled the Rams’ 2020-21 season. She returned a year later for her sophomore campaign and averaged 8.6 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 6.0 apg (third in Division II) and 2.5 spg.
Robinson was a first team All-CACC selection as a junior last season, averaging 10.0 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 7.4 apg and 2.6 spg and has continued to master Shirley’s offense.
Morgan Robinson and Jefferson are currently ranked No. 6 in the country. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
“I kind of caught on real quickly,” Robinson said. “Like being a point guard in high school, I knew I should know the plays and know everyone else's position as well as my own. It just kind of clicked. Coach will ask me what play you wanna run, and we’ll both come up with the same play or I’ll be thinking of it and he’ll say it.”
“Or sometimes she’ll go X and I’ll go Y, and I’ll go, ‘You know what, you got it,” Shirley added. “I always say if (assistant coach) Matt Bamford and I couldn’t make a game, she could coach. She knows exactly what to do. She knows where to go.”
Her teammates also had to get used to her knowing the plays so well. She’s like a quarterback, throwing passes before they break out of their routes.
“A big word is anticipation,” Robinson said. “I can see something or see my teammates see it. They’ll make the cut and I’ll just get them the ball. With the play sets, everyone knows where they need to be, and I know where everyone should be. It’s easy to create opportunities and get them the ball.”
Robinson entered the program alongside another special player in senior forward Haley Meinel (C.B. South), and they were joined a year later by junior wing Sam Yencha and junior forward Cassie Murphy during the COVID-canceled 2020-21 campaign, two more who are leaving their marks at Jefferson.
Yencha is the team’s top scorer (17.2 ppg), is third in Division II in rebounding (11.7 ppg) and a double-double machine, ranking second nationally with 13 in 19 games. Meinel (15.7 ppg) is the team leader in steals (3.9 spg) and blocks, ranking third and 44th nationally in those categories, while also approaching 1,700 career points. Murphy’s the fourth star, averaging 14.0 ppg and 6.9 rpg.
“My sophomore year, that’s when I realized we had an opportunity to build because we had five freshmen coming in,” Robinson said. “With us being with each other each year, we would progress and get stronger, work together and get stronger as a team. And just build on each year. It’s just been amazing playing on my team.”
Robinson and Meinel were part of a 20-11 CACC championship team during their first year before the NCAA Tournament was canceled due to COVID. With Yencha and Murphy also along for the ride in 2021-22, they went 24-9 and lost in the league title game before reaching the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Last season, the Rams were even better, going 28-5 (16-1 CACC). Despite falling in the CACC semifinals they made a run to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1986.
Currently sitting 18-1 with an unblemished 8-0 CACC mark, the Rams are ranked No. 6 nationally and have goals of going another game deeper for a third straight year with an Elite Eight run — and adding an elusive CACC Tournament title as well.
“This team is mentally committed to going back,” Shirley said. “It’s not about the number of wins we get. It’s about winning the games that get us there.”
Robinson has a chemistry degree and is getting her master’s in cannabis business. Shirley knows she has a bright future beyond her stellar basketball career.
She’s leaving quite the act to follow for the Jefferson point guards who follow her, including freshman guard Tori Nigro, an Archbishop Ryan, Saint Basil Academy and Villa Joseph Marie product.
She’s also forced her coach to change a line he’s been using for three decades.
“Now I gotta say, ‘Morgan Robinson has it, relax,’” Shirley said.