ANNAPOLIS, Md. - Kara Pollinger (Jr., Fort, Gay, W.Va.) and Chloe Stapleton (So., Cary, N.C.) combined for 11 three-point field goals and 43 points to lead the Navy women's basketball team past Holy Cross, 72-53, Saturday evening at Alumni Hall in Annapolis in the championship game of the Patriot League Tournament.
The victory gives Navy its third league tournament crown in three seasons. The lone other time in league history in which a program has won as many as three league titles in a row was Holy Cross, which captured four-straight titles from 1998-2001.
"Each one is special in its own way," said Patriot League Tournament MVP Alix Membreno (Jr., Loxahatchee, Fla.). "Every team is different. What is really awesome about this one is we all are coming back next year.
"Not only do we play basketball well together, but we get along really well. We're like best friends. That's a really great feeling, when you step into the locker room and onto the court and you are not only with your teammate but you are also with your best friend. It is like a family. I've played on some teams where people really don't get along and it affects the game, but it is different when we step onto the court."
"Each season has its own story, its own ups-and-downs and its own game-by-game process," said Pollinger. "It just always feels great to reach that final goal of what you have been working toward all season.
"Coming into the locker room the first day and seeing Jade Geif (Jr., Lakeville, Minn.) gave me confidence right from the get-go. Our class had a lot of chemistry right from the start. I think we have some inspirational players who are self motivated, and it makes every practice and every game and helps us grow."
"Obviously it (winning three-straight titles) has a lot to do with these women sitting here right now," said Navy head coach Stefanie Pemper, who has now led Navy to an 11-2 effort in the Patriot League Tournament in her five seasons, which followed a 17-year span where the Mids were a combined 9-17 in the postseason. "I thought Chloe was such a nice piece to our team. It is such a journey, such a grind, and these women work really hard and long in a lot of different ways, mentally, physically, emotionally. It just feels really great for them. You always hope their athletic experience empowers them in their lives and I think this has done that for them, but they are the ones who made that happen so it is just a really fulfilling feeling."
The Midshipmen, co-champions of the regular season for the second time in three years, will learn their NCAA Tournament fate Monday night when ESPN announces the pairings for the event. The Navy players and coaches will view the selection show at Federal House Bar & Grille in Annapolis. Members of the public are invited to join the team.
Pollinger set the tone for the eventual course of the evening with a three-point field goal on Navy's opening possession of the game. Membreno soon followed with a jumper to give the Mids a 5-0 lead to start the contest. Holy Cross answered with a 7-0 run to take not only its first lead of the game, but also its first lead over the Mids in three games this season. After the teams traded field goals to make the score 9-7 in favor of the Crusaders, Pollinger stole the ball went nearly three-quarters of the court to score on a bucket and ensuing foul shot to give Navy a 10-9 advantage and a lead it would not relinquish for the remainder of the game.
Pollinger's old-fashioned three-point play sparked a 12-0 run that gave the Mids a 19-9 lead. The last six points of the spurt came courtesy of back-to-back triples from Stapleton.
Holy Cross quickly chipped away at the margin and closed to within six points at 23-17 with 6:37 remaining in the half. Stapleton gave the Mids a little separation with another three-point shot, which began a 10-2 run that boosted the margin out to 33-19. A field goal by Holy Cross with just under one minute to play in the first half made the score 33-21 in favor of the Mids at the break.
The Crusaders opened the second half by scoring 12 of the first 18 points of the frame. That allowed Holy Cross to winnow the margin down to 39-33 with 14:26 left on the clock. The teams traded missed three-point shots before Membreno blocked Christine Ganser and pulled in the carom. That would lead to Membreno assisting on another three-point shot by Stapleton to make it a nine-point lead. Nearly 90 seconds later, Pollinger followed with another triple to take Navy's lead out to 45-33 with just under 12 minutes remaining in the game.
Twice within one minute of play Holy Cross sliced the lead down to eight points, but first Stapleton and then Pollinger immediately connected on three-point shots that gave Navy leads of 50-39 and 53-42, respectively.
Navy led by at least 11 points over the remainder of the game.
"I thought our players did a decent job tonight with tempo," said Pemper. "I thought that was a big difference. Holy Cross can really transition and they led the league in points. We also like to run, and I think we did a pretty nice job of picking our spots and executing our stuff and just feeling like tempo never got out of control. Holy Cross made some mini runs, but I don't think they ever made a big run, kind of like Bucknell did the other night. I think our players stepped up and made plays when they had to."
Navy's shooting was very balanced as the Mids were 13 of 29 (44.8%) from both two-point range and three-point land. The 13 triples was two shy of tying the Navy, Patriot League and Patriot League Tournament record of 15 set by the Mids three seasons ago in the quarterfinal round against Colgate.
Conversely, Navy's defense held Holy Cross to a 4 of 20 (20%) effort in its three-point shooting and a 35.6 percent (21-59) night in all from the floor.
Holy Cross entered the game leading the league in scoring average (60.1 ppg), field goal percentage (41.6%) and three-point percentage (33.7%). In the three games between the teams this season, Navy outscored Holy Cross by an average of 63.7-45.0 points per game. The Mids limited the Crusaders to 11 three-point field goals made and shooting percentages of 30.1 percent from the floor and 18.6 percent from three-point range. Conversely, Navy made 33 three-point shots and sank 40.8 percent of its shots and 38.8 percent of its three-point attempts.
"Eventually those shots are going to fall," said Pollinger of Navy's three-point effort. "We shoot a lot of threes. Obviously Chloe and Audrey Bauer (Jr., Lake Zurich, Ill.) hit some big threes, so it was the whole team. I think we kind of inspired each other. (Defensively) I think we had a great gameplan for our ball screen defense and limiting three-point shots for Alex Smith and Amy Lepley."=
Navy also held a 41-36 advantage on the glass, and though the Mids forced Holy Cross into just two more turnovers than Navy committed (12-10), the Mids tallied 22 points after turnovers while the Crusaders notched just eight such points.
"I thought before the game our players felt confident, genuinely confident, and I think they brought it out to the court," said Pemper. "They had a nice level of emotion. They were aggressive, but they were under control. I think there were some things that didn't go our way and they responded pretty well to it. It was a real mature effort by our women."
Pollinger tied a career high with six three-point field goals and set a new league championship game standard with a career-high tying 24 points. Stapleton nearly equaled Pollinger's output from beyond the three-point arc as she connected on five long-range shots to score 19 points. Both players were named to the all-tournament team along with Geif, who scored nine points and grabbed 12 rebounds.
Membreno posted an impressive statistical line of 10 points, seven assists, six rebounds, two blocks and two steals in 31 minutes of action Saturday. She averaged 12.7 points, 9.3 rebounds and 7.0 assists in Navy's three games during the Patriot League Tournament.
"I really don't think about statistics," said Membreno. "Winning the Patriot League championship is my goal, and that's what happened tonight. It is nice to win MVP, but when I look at my stats I have to thank my teammates for making that pass, making that shot and boxing out. Sometimes I get lucky. It is a nice feeling (being named MVP), but I definitely prefer the championship hardware."
The 72 points scored by Navy tied its season high (vs. Jackson State, at Lehigh), was the most the Mids has scored in a league tournament game in nine years and was the most scored by a team in the championship game since 2005. Defensively, the Mids did not allow a Patriot League team to score more than 55 points against it all season, with the 53 points tallied by Holy Cross tying the mark for the most Navy gave up in a regulation game.