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Jefferson MBB and WBB gear up for NCAA Tournament after CACC titles

03/14/2024, 5:30pm EDT
By Owen McCue

By Owen McCue (@Owen_McCue)

The Jefferson men’s basketball team had some extra supporters in Caldwell, N.J. on Sunday for its Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference championship game

Arriving a little early for their CACC title contest later in the day was the Rams women’s squad.

After taking home their first tournament championship since 2018-19, the Jefferson men returned the favor and hung around to cheer on their cohorts as they brought home their first league championship since 2020-21. 

“When you’re up in a neutral gym, and you look over it can’t hurt ya,” Jefferson men’s coach Jimmy Reilly said. “It’s gotta help ya.”

Both teams were able to celebrate their titles together before their respective bus rides home. The two championship wins marked the first time since 2009 both of Jefferson’s basketball programs hoisted the league title. Now, the two squads will continue on to the NCAA Tournament this weekend, supporting each other from afar.

“I think that speaks volume to the relationships they have as not just fellow teams, but friends and colleagues and classmates,” Jefferson women’s coach Tom Shirley said.

The Jefferson men's and women's basketball teams pose together after both winning CACC Tournament Championships on Sunday in Caldwell, N.J. It's the first time both teams have done that since 2009. (Photo courtesy Jefferson Athletics)

The Jefferson men will make their first NCAA Tournament appearance in five years when they take the floor at Saint Michael’s College in Colchester, Vt. on Saturday. The No. 5-seed Rams (23-8) face No. 4-seed Daemen University (24-8).

Senior forward Antonin Kemkeng (Second team All-CACC selection) is the only player in his final year of eligibility, but juniors Erik Timko (the back-to-back CACC Player of the Year), Troy McGregor, Ahmed Barba-Bey (third team All-CACC) and Bismark Nsiah have been on campus four years chasing a league title together.

“For these guys to get that opportunity, to say they played in the NCAA Tournament is something that’s just great,” Reilly said. “It’s something they’ll always have when they have families they can tell their families they actually played in the NCAA Tournament. We’re super excited. Obviously now, everybody you play is really good, but we’re playing our best basketball right now and hopefully we can keep it going.”

Despite a conference title eluding them in the past two seasons, the Rams’ women have tournament experience. They knocked off D-II power Bentley (Mass.) in the first round in 2021-22 for the program’s first tournament win since 1998. Last season they reached the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1986.

Senior captains Emily Keefus and Haley Meinel (CACC Defensive Player of the Year), senior guard Morgan Robinson (the program’s all-time assists leader), junior Sam Yencha (CACC Player of the Year) and junior Cassie Murphy (All-CACC second team) have formed the core of the last three squads that have continued to one-up the season before.

It’s built toward a “once in a lifetime” team that looks destined to make even more history this season, currently sitting at a program record 30-1 and ranked No. 10 nationally heading into Friday’s first round game against Southern New Hampshire at Bentley University in Waltham, Mass.

“The common theme amongst them all is, ‘We’re not going to step backwards. We’re going to continue to step forwards,’” said Shirley, who was named the CACC Coach of the Year.

“It’s been a progression of steps in their minds. … This year their whole focus has been to get to the Elite Eight, which is the next step, which means winning the region.”

Shirley and Reilly both described a similar trait that’s distinguished these two groups. Shirley called it a lack of “drama,” while Reilly discussed a team with “no jealousy.” There’s an unselfishness, chemistry and commitment to winning that defines both Jefferson teams this season.

“The three things I tell people is we have chemistry, we have skill sets and they love to play,” Shirley said. “ When you can put those three things together, particularly the chemistry and lack of drama, you’re way, way steps ahead.

Reilly’s 10 upperclassmen live together in two five-person apartments on campus right by the facility. Along with a strong bond, there is a commitment level to getting the team better that’s been there since the start of the season.

“Their attitude is what stands out the most,” Reilly said. “Even at the beginning of the year when we weren’t playing our best and we lost some games that we should have won, they came to practice with a great attitude wanting to get better.”

The two programs became close when they both brought in big freshman classes in 2020-21, during which their seasons were canceled and they were some of the only students on campus. As Sunday showed they’ll be in each other’s corners from a far this week. 

Regardless of their tournament finishes, they’ll depart their college careers with a special memory together.

“It was just a great day for Jefferson University,” Reilly said of Sunday.

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