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Record-setting St. Joe's WBB season ends short of a title

03/28/2024, 10:45pm EDT
By Andrew Robinson

Andrew Robinson (@ADRobinson3)

VILLANOVA >> All good things come to an end, but sometimes it’s fair to want a little more

Saint Joseph’s women’s basketball, by most any measure, had an outstanding season. The Hawks posted 28 wins, won an outright Big Five title, finished third in the A-10 and made the quarterfinals in the inaugural WBIT bracket with a roster poised to bring almost everyone back.

That all looks good, but the Hawks still rightly wanted more and a lack of any hardware to go with it will be a sticking point all offseason.

Talya Brugler (above) is part of what should be a strong returning St. Joe's core. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)

“I’d say we’re ready to start tomorrow,” Hawks forward Tayla Brugler said. “We’re excited to get right back at it. We know what this is like and we want more, we have a lot of people returning on our team so that will definitely fuel our fire.”

The No. 3 seed Hawks dropped a 67-59 decision to No. 1 seed Villanova at Finneran Pavilion on Thursday, watching their rivals move on to the inaugural WBIT final four at Butler next week. While St. Joe’s had finally snapped a long losing streak against the Wildcats - seven years to be exact - in December, an untimely poor offensive night prevented a sweep.

St Joe’s shot just 21-of-61 from the floor and 3-of-16 from three-point range, a 3-of-16 showing in the first quarter putting the Hawks in a hole they spent the night trying to dig out of. The deficit expanded to double-digits several times and unlike the December meeting on Hawk Hill, with an extremely uncharacteristic 1-of-14 night from standout sophomore Laura Ziegler, there was no rally in store on Thursday.

“Villanova did a really good job from a defensive standpoint,” Hawks coach Cindy Griffin said. “They made it really hard for us to score in the paint. Despite all that, Tayla ends up with 20 which is unbelievable.

“Our kids came and they fought really, really, really hard and they left everything out on the floor, which is all I can ask for a team that went 28-6.”

The 28 wins was a single-season record for the Hawks, who advanced to their first postseason quarterfinal since 2004. St. Joe’s also posted a 15-2 record in road games, the 15 wins tying for most in the country this season.

A sweep of the Big Five during the regular season netted St. Joe’s its first Big Five title since 2014-15 and first outright city title since the 2013-14 campaign. 

“We wanted more, we wanted to be a part of that final four and playing for a national championship,” Griffin said. “The growth in this team over the course of the year has been phenomenal but you’re only as good as your last game, so we know it’ll fuel our offseason and be even better next year.”

Brugler moved into ninth all-time in program history for career scoring, she and Mackenzie Smith both surpassing 1,000 career points during the season. The two juniors also earned second team All-Atlantic 10 honors while Ziegler was a first team All A-10 selection and tabbed to the conference’s all-defensive team.

Gabby Casey (above) finished her freshman year on a high note. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)

St. Joe’s got a taste of the postseason last year, making the WNIT field but losing in the first round. Going on a run this year offered more of a look and instilled more of a desire for the entire roster to keep pushing for more

“There’s a lot of growth all together,” Smith said. “Last year, we only made it there and lost. We knew coming into the postseason it was going to be the same battle. We were going to have to be more physical, we were going to have to attack first and I think we’ve grown in that sense.

“Coach always says you have to be the first person to give the first punch, then keep on punching.”

The Hawks lose graduate guard Chloe Welch from the starting lineup, the transfer scoring eight points in her final game and earning praise from her coach and teammates for her defensive work on Villanova’s Lucy Olsen. Bridget Monaghan, a grad transfer from Catholic University, is the only other player on the roster with expiring eligibility.

Griffin pointed to the team’s road record as a sign of its growth as well. However, just because the Hawks played well away from Hagan Arena this year and have the majority of their roster due back next year doesn’t automatically mean they’ll have the same kind of season.

That’s why Smith and Brugler seemed so eager to get back to work less than a half hour after their season came to a halt.

“We’ve taken a lot of leaps forward and there’s no going back,” Brugler said. “Knowing what we want and what our goals are as a team, we start by accomplishing our goals every day and using that as motivation for postseason, the summer and once preseason starts next year.”

Smith, Brugler and Julia Nystrom - all part of the Hawks’ 2021 recruiting class -  have grown immensely in two years to now form the core of a strong team alongside Brugler. Freshmen Gabby Casey and Aleah Snead gave St. Joe’s some flashes of their potential and the Hawks will look for more from them next season.

Sometimes, a good thing comes to an end. Occasionally, it ends up leading to something better.

“I looked at Coach (Katie) Kuester and said ‘are we working out tomorrow?’ I’m proud to be a part of this group,” Smith said. “28-6, I think it’s phenomenal but in the end, we want more.”

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