The Women’s Basketball team soared to victory on Saturday, Feb. 23 as the Lady Hawks captured the SUNYAC Championship title for the first time in program history.
The Lady Hawks beat SUNY Plattsburgh on Feb. 22 to advance to the finals on Feb. 23, where they defeated SUNY Geneseo 64-53.
A sea of orange and blue stormed the court as the final buzzer indicated that after 30 years, the Women’s Basketball team would hang up their first banner in Hawk Center.
As fans and players celebrated, Head Coach Jamie Seward was thinking about the people who helped him achieve his goal.
“It was very emotional,” Seward said. “It has been a long journey, and so many people had shed so much blood, sweat and tears to get us to that point. I was thinking of all of them, and I was thinking of my father who passed away this past summer and was my biggest supporter.”
The Lady Hawks came out strong in the first half and led by seven at halftime. Co-captain Alex McCullough scored the first four points of the game and was the team’s leading scorer, netting 14. Her motivation stemmed from the realization that this could be her last game as a Hawk.
“I knew I had to play with my heart out,” McCullough said. “It could’ve been the last game of my career, so I had a talk with the three seniors and we were basically like, it’s all or nothing, so that was really our motivation.”
The team shot 32.4 percent from the field and 59.1 percent from the free-throw line. Though Geneseo exhibited better numbers, defensively, New Paltz outplayed the Blue Knights.
Strong defensive play sparked the Hawks’ offense as they forced 27 turnovers and scored 21 points as a result. The Hawks committed 12 turnovers, allowing Geneseo to score nine points in the process.
First-year Michelle Valle netted 11 points and grabbed eight boards. She does not believe the team has played their best game yet, but attributes the win to defense and passion.
“I don’t believe that we played the perfect game yet,” Valle said. “What is perfect on our behalf, we played great defense that makes up for all the mistakes we made. That game, what we did perfectly is we played with heart, that’s what basically won the game for us.”
Co-captain Maliqua Fisher won tournament MVP and recored a double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds. During the second half, Fisher was fouled with a holding call and had to step off the court to wipe the blood from her mouth. When she came back out, she looked directly into her opponent’s eyes and slammed her hands on the ground.
“To be honest, I just felt like when I got hit in the mouth everyone was like, ‘oh my God,’ so I just had to prove that I was that much tougher and that much stronger and it wasn’t going to take me out of the game,” Fisher said. “No matter what, if I was shedding blood or not, so I felt like I had to be there for my team and amp us up more on defense.”
Valle said that moment was her favorite of the night.
“For us, when she had that type of intensity as a leader, that ignites more intensity in us and it makes me feel like taking it to the next level,” Valle said. “I didn’t feel tired in that game, there was so much momentum.”
Each player realized they had won the tournament at different points of the night. For McCullough and Fisher, they knew at halftime.
“We actually were talking about this going into the halftime,” McCullough said. “We had played the best game we had played all season and we just knew, like we’ve never been up at halftime like that, the momentum was all in our favor and we all really kinda had a feeling the whole second half. Even when they came back within three points, none of us really seemed worried. We kept our composure and just finished out the game strong.”
Seward and Valle were certain they won when the game was over.
“Well, I liked the way we were playing at the half, and felt good about where we were, but I can’t say the same as Alex,” Seward said. “It wasn’t until about 1:00 remaining that I ‘knew’ we had won.”
The team’s past experience with close games makes Valle weary to call a win until she hears the buzzer, she said.
“[I knew] when the clock said zero because anything could happen,” Valle said. “We played so many close games that at this point, we just wait until the buzzer goes off.”
Fisher said winning the SUNYAC tournament her senior year was gratifying after coming so close to victory every year.
“I feel like all my four years here we’ve made it to the playoffs and the semifinals and we’ve just been so close every single year,” Fisher said. “It’s just like, when is the time going to be ours? Winning our senior year, it’s just amazing because we went through so much over these last four years and now to finally be rewarded my senior year, it’s a great feeling.”
The team continues their journey at the NCAA Tournament and will face Babson College next. Valle said that although the team is excited about the win, they are focused on the next game.
“One of the things that I love about my team is that we celebrated for the weekend and now it’s time to win another championship,” Valle said. “Although we’re still excited about it, we’re just focusing on really playing our game. We’re not worried about Babson, we’re worried about having our stuff right, all being on the same page and basically being confident in ourselves.”
The Lady Hawks will play Babson in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday, March 1 at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.