ANNAPOLIS, Md. -- With the Mids holding just a four-point lead, an Audrey Bauer (Jr., Lake Zurich, Ill.) jumper midway through the second half ignited a 15-2 run by the Navy women's basketball team and propelled it past Bucknell, 60-48, Monday night at Alumni Hall in Annapolis in the semifinal round of the Patriot League Tournament.
The victory moves Navy into the championship game of the tournament. The second-seeded Mids will play host to fourth-seeded Holy Cross Saturday at 6 p.m. in Alumni Hall. It will be the second-straight season in which the Mids and the Crusaders will square off for the league's automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament, and the fourth time the teams will have met in the final. Additionally, Navy will be attempting to match the Holy Cross teams from 1998-2000 as the lone programs to win three-consecutive tournament titles.
"It is a huge opportunity," said Navy's Jade Geif (Jr., Lakeville, Minn.), of Navy playing for a third title in as many years. "This is our third year together and our third chance to play for a championship. It is exciting and a privilege to be with each other every single day. That's what we have been thinking about. This gives us the chance to practice together again. It is exciting."
"I wouldn't say we expected to be here," said Alix Membreno (Jr., Loxahatchee, Fla.). "It is just awesome to work this hard for so long. Not many people get to make it to a championship game at any point in their careers. I think it is an honor. It is awesome to see your hard work pay off. We start in August and we just grind for months and months and go through ups and downs and adversity. It is an emotional roller coaster as well. It is a blessing to be here three years in a row. It is definitely not expected."
"It has been an emotional year," said Navy head coach Stefanie Pemper, who has guided Navy to nine league tournaments wins in her five seasons after the Navy program had won a total of seven tournament games in its first 17 seasons in the league, "and will continue to be this week and Saturday for sure. We had some ups and downs in the non-league season. It gets lost that but for Army (Navy was 0-2 vs. Army) we had such a fantastic league season and it comes to that final game at Bucknell (a loss to the Bison in the regular season finale that would have give the Mids the outright league crown). It is kind of like, we had a terrific regular season after having a difficult non-league season, then we go to overtime (against Lafayette in the quarterfinals) and Jade had to hit two free throws for us just to get to the semifinals. You obviously saw some upsets in the quarters and when you look around the country it is not uncommon for top seeds to go down.
"We're incredibly proud to be hosting the Patriot League championship. It is another game on national television, that's fantastic for the league and great for the Academy. These women have always really wanted it. As Alix said, they started in August and they really do work hard. I'm happy for them that some things went our way, we got a little luck, got some bounces, worked really hard, worked really smart and stayed together."
Navy (20-11) scored on its opening possession of the game when Geif sank a short jumper just 20 seconds into the game. Bauer hit a three-point shot a little more than one minute later and Membreno soon followed with a layup to boost Navy out to a 7-0 run to start the game. The Mids quickly expanded their cushion out to 15-5 and later took a 26-11 lead on a jumper by Geif with just under five minutes left in the first half. The teams would head to the locker rooms with Navy holding a 26-13 advantage.
Navy made 11 field goals and shot 40.7 percent from the floor in the first half while limiting Bucknell (15-16), the No. 6 seed in the tournament, to five made field goals and a 20.8-percent effort from the floor. Sparking the Mids in the first 20 minutes was Membreno, who tied a career-high for a full game with six assists in the frame while adding four points and four caroms.
Defense controlled much of the latter stages of the first half as the Mids went nearly six minutes without a field goal and the Bison were held without a bucket for just under seven minutes. That changed in the early part of the second half as the teams combined for 20 points in the first four minutes of play after the break.
Navy scored the opening points of the half to take a 28-13 lead and still held a 35-22 advantage with 16:18 showing on the clock. Bucknell slowly whittled away at the margin and soon a three-point shot by Tyler Craig pulled the Bison to within four points of Navy at 39-35 with 9:53 left in the game. The Mids brought the ball over halfcourt and Pemper called timeout.
Following the inbounds, Navy placed the ball into the hands of Bauer who calmly drilled a 15-foot jumper from the right wing for Navy's second field goal in a span of five minutes.
"Having that confidence in every single one of us and each other," said Geif, "knowing when we kick the ball out and run a play for Audrey that she is going to read the screen and hit the shot ... that's what we were doing tonight. We were feeling each other's confidence."
Bucknell misfired on a pair of shots during its next trip down the court, then Kara Pollinger (Jr., Fort Gay, W.Va.) nailed a mid-range jumper of her own from the left wing to boost the Navy lead out to 47-35 and resulted in Bucknell calling a timeout. Geif blocked a shot out of bounds on the ensuing Bison possession, then Bauer tallied a steal for the Mids to send the ball back the other way. That led to Bauer drilling a three-point to give Navy a 46-35 lead. Bauer grabbed another defensive carom for the Mids, which was followed by Pollinger connecting on a three-point shot to give Navy a 49-35 lead with 6:51 showing on the clock.
"We hit that big shot coming out of the timeout," said Pemper. "Then we hit another one and got a stop."
Navy would hold a lead ranging from 12 to 17 points over the rest of the game.
The Mids connected on 56 percent of their shots from the floor in the second half. This was despite Navy making just 4 of its 12 three-point attempts over the final 20 minutes of play. Navy needed all of those points as Bucknell would hit on 41.2 percent of its shots from the field after halftime. For the game, Navy outshot Bucknell, 48.1%-32.8%. The Mids also held a slim 38-35 cushion on the boards.
"Our defense was really good," said Pemper. "We did a nice job on Audrey Dotson (seven points on eight shots from the floor). She had been really hot for them. I just thought we worked really hard on the defense end and in rebounding. And the ball started going in. Basketball can be sort of cruel at times. Two teams take open shots; one hits them and the other doesn't. And `threes' are so emotional. We just executed and made some shots. I think people's body language and demeanor was better coming out of that timeout."
Membreno posted a double-double for the second game in a row. After contributing 10 points and 12 boards in Navy's quarterfinal round victory over Lafayette, she notched 18 points and 10 rebounds, to go along with eight assists and two blocks, in tonight's game.
"When you are playing you are not thinking about how many points you are scoring or how many rebounds you are getting," said Membreno, who fell two assists shy of recording just the second triple-double in Navy history . "I want to win, so honestly I didn't really know the statistics. I just was focused on what I could do to help the team win. It is nice to not be `short' for your teammates."
"Really gutsy," said Pemper of Membreno's performance. "She did a nice job of overcoming some basic mistakes that sometimes bother her. She was fighting through some fatigue. She had to work so hard at guarding a couple of people. Her will to win was great leadership she showed tonight."
She was joined in double figures by Bauer, who made a trio of three-point shots for the second-straight game to score 13 points, and by Geif, who was 5 of 9 from the floor in scoring 12 points while snaring seven caroms.
Lindsay Horbatuck also produced a double-double for the Bison with 14 points and 10 rebounds, while Shelby Romine matched Horbatuck's scoring line for the Bison.
Tickets for Saturday's game are $8 for adults and $4 for youths and senior citizens. They are available through the Navy Ticket Office by calling 1-800-US4-NAVY or by clicking on the "TICKETS" link in the masthead of NavySports.com.