BETHLEHEM, Pa. - Kara Pollinger (So., Fort Gay, W.Va.) broke a tie game with a weaving layup and assisted on a three-point field goal a short while later to spark the Navy women's basketball team to a game-closing 5-0 run and a 64-59 victory over Lehigh Monday night at Stabler Arena in Bethlehem, Pa., in the semifinal round of the Patriot League Tournament.
The win by the third-seeded and defending-champion Mids over the No. 2 Mountain Hawks advanced Navy into Saturday's Patriot League Championship game against Holy Cross. The No. 5 Crusaders defeated top-seeded American, 67-52, in tonight's other semifinal game. That means Saturday's game will be played in Alumni Hall in Annapolis. The 6 p.m. game will be aired on national cable television on the CBS Sports Network.
The road team won both games in the Navy-Holy Cross series.
Saturday's game will mark the third time the teams will have met in the championship game. The Crusaders defeated the Mids in both the 1998 and '99 championship games.
"We're really excited to be playing in the championship game and having the opportunity to do so at home," said Navy head coach Stefanie Pemper. "It really is an honor, and I'm happy for our players."
Navy went on a great run midway through the first half to turn a 19-18 advantage into a 31-20 lead. Lehigh quickly chipped away and sliced the margin down to 33-28 at the break.
Both teams shot the ball very well in the first half, especially from outside of the three-point arc. Navy connected on 7-of-11 three-point attempts and shot 40 percent from the field overall in the first half, while Lehigh made 6-of-9 attempts from beyond the arc and made 42.3 percent of all its shots.
Lehigh carried its momentum into the start of the second half and tied the game at 38-38 before taking a 41-40 lead. That would be the first of six lead changes in the second half.
What would prove the be the final lead change came when a short jumper by Erin Edwards (Sr., Hockessin, Del.) gave Navy a 57-56 lead with just under four minutes left on the clock. The Navy lead would soon grow to three points on a pair of free throws by Alix Membreno (So., Loxahatchee, Fla.) with 2:32 showing on the clock.
That advantage was short lived, however, as Marybeth Egan connected on her fourth three-point field goal of the night to tie the score at 59-59 with two minutes remaining in the game.
Pollinger broke the fourth tie of the second half on a layup with 1:40 left on the clock. Lehigh would throw the ball out of bounds to end its next possession, then Pollinger found an open Audrey Bauer (So., Lake Zurich, Ill.) who drilled a three-point field goal with 1:06 remaining in the game to boost Navy's lead to 64-59.
Egan would miss a jumper on the ensuing Lehigh possession, with Membreno grabbing the errant carom. Lehigh fouled several times to get over the seven-foul limit and send the Mids to the free throw line. The strategy worked as Pollinger missed the front end of the bonus with 39 seconds left in the game. The Mountain Hawks rushed the ball down the court, but Egan would miss a three-point attempt that was gathered in by Bauer who was immediately fouled.
Bauer went to the line and, like Pollinger, missed the front end of the bonus. However, Edwards was there for the rebound and was fouled with 16 seconds left. She too would miss the first bonus free throw, but this time Pollinger grabbed the loose ball and passed it to Bauer who was fouled with 11 seconds remaining. Bauer continued Navy's lack of success from the foul line as she missed both shots from the line, and this time Leigh grabbed the rebound. It would take until six seconds were left on the clock before Aly Byrocik could attempt a shot, which missed its mark and was batted out of bounds by the Mids with less than one second left to play. After a quick inbounds pass, the final horn sounded to advance the Mids into its second consecutive championship game.
"I think the players came into the game very focused, in a good place with their confidence and with a lot of camaraderie," said Pemper. "There were so many little things we felt we had to do to win, but our preparation was straight forward and it came down to being able to execute.
"The way the second half went tonight, with the officials starting to call fouls in the second half after calling just one in the first half, and then with us losing our lead, it reminded me of our two games against Army," said Pemper. "We were able to pull out two close games down the stretch against Army, and I think we went back to the mindset we had in those games tonight."
After shooting 40 percent from the field in the first half, Navy upped its percentage to 48 percent in the second half. This was despite missing five of its seven three-point attempts. On the other end of the court, Navy held Lehigh to a 31.4-percent shooting effort from the floor after halftime.
Lehigh held a 42-34 advantage on the boards, but Navy turned the ball over just seven times in the game and forced the Mountain Hawks into 14 turnovers. Helping the Mids even more was their scoring 20 points after the Lehigh turnovers while the Mountain Hawks scored only three points after Navy turnovers.
Navy had great balance on offense as five Mids reached double figures in points. Geif and Edwards both tallied 13 points, Pollinger finished with 12, Bauer recorded 11 and Membreno added 10 points. Additionally, five different Mids tallied at least one three-point field goal. Membreno led Navy with nine caroms, Bauer snared eight boards and Geif dished out six assists.
"The box score was very appropriate for how tonight's game went on both ends of the floor," said Pemper. "We had great balance on offense and played great defense as individuals and as a team on the other end of the floor."
Egan's four three-point field goals gave her a Lehigh-best 15 points on the night.