March 17, 2011
By Bob Socci
Moments after her players vacated the floor of Alumni Hall, Stefanie Pemper stood behind a row of empty press-row seats.
Third-year head coach of the Navy Midshipmen, Pemper had just adjourned the final full practice before the Patriot League women's basketball championship. Twenty-four hours later, she would be on the other side of the floor, facing the courtside chairs now just a few steps away.
The Mids she had just dismissed would soon try to dispose of the American Eagles for the third time since Jan. 26. They would face a familiar foe, for the right to earn a most unfamiliar reward.
Victory would deliver what neither program had ever achieved; a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
Many times before, Pemper had prepared for games of relatively similar consequence. She led Bowdoin College to the Division III NCAA tourney in nine of her 10 seasons as head coach. In 2004, the Polar Bears advanced as far as the national title game.
Pemper was also an assistant for Harvard in 1998, when the Crimson derailed Stanford to become the first-ever 16th seed to beat a top regional seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Party to the most historic upset in women's basketball, and privy to plenty of postseason experience, Pemper wasn't lacking perspective. And from where she was on the eve of Navy's first conference final since 1999, the most important keys for her Midshipmen looked pretty simple.
"We have to be relentless on defense," Pemper said. "We have to be fearless on offense."
She spoke her words matter-of-factly, her manner no different than during the just-concluded workout. When instruction needed stressing, Pemper relied on a little sarcasm rather than a raised voice. This way, it seemed, she was simply reminding her players what they already knew.
Something else she understood well was that the Eagles were very experienced. American was about to appear in its third conference final in four years. Not only was 22-win AU talented, its players were accustomed to postseason pressure.
Navy's were anything but. Seniors Angela Myers
and Cassie Consedine
celebrated only seven wins as freshmen and, though improved, couldn't breakthrough the semifinal round as sophomores and juniors.
They would be joined by two plebes in the starting lineup, with a third soon to accompany them off the bench.
Sure, the old basketball theory, that by March there are no such things as freshmen, might prove true. But there was no way of truly knowing what to expect.
Pemper was confident, mainly because of how the Mids dispatched Colgate and Bucknell from the field with relative ease.
The Raiders' 36 total points were the fewest in tournament history. The Bison produced just 13 first-half points. The cumulative score of Navy's two wins was 110-77. The Mids, themselves, were confident. Extremely.
Nonetheless, no coach in the same spot could keep from wondering - at least briefly - how her players would respond the following evening. Particularly with the plebes.
"I don't want that deer-in-the-headlight moment," said Pemper.
The following night, with Pemper repositioned in front of her team's bench, the youthful Mids were suddenly at risk of such a moment, in the opening minute of play.
Navy gained possession first, only to have American steal the ball away and hit a three-pointer. The Mids' ensuing opportunity resulted in the same; another takeaway and another three-ball by the Eagles.
Two minutes in, AU led, 8-0, while Navy's offense consisted of an errant three-point attempt, one rebound and three turnovers. Funny, like the proverbial deer, the Mids didn't blink, nor did they run.
Yet, they also didn't freeze, even as they held their ground. They kept their composure and maintained contact with the Eagles. They did it, mainly, by looking to a freshman. Albeit the Patriot League's Rookie of the Year, Jade Geif.
When Geif laid in her fourth field goal, she drew Navy within, 22-18, with 5:33 left in the first half. The problem, however, is that her basket was the Mids' last before the break. American's all-conference senior Liz Leer drilled two late treys for a 30-18 lead.
That margin at halftime was the widest of the night. Worse for Navy, its two all-league seniors, Consedine and Myers, were a combined 0-for-8 from the field, their lone points off two free throws.
Consedine never did seem to recover from the thumb injury she suffered toward the end of the previous night's workout. While collecting 10 rebounds, she would be shutout in the scoring column, missing all eight shots.
With 20 minutes remaining, trailing by 12 points, Navy returned to those hardwood boards, otherwise known as Dave Smalley Court.
The floor of Alumni Hall had been dedicated as such in Jan. 2006, in honor of the two-sport star who graduated in 1957 and became a beloved member of the Naval Academy family for a half century.
In fact, it was the late Smalley, soon after women were welcomed among the Brigade and well before Alumni Hall rose above the Severn, who started what was just now so close to achieving something so special.
Following his tour of Marine Corps duty, Smalley succeeded Hall of Famer Ben Carnevale as head coach of the Navy men's basketball team in 1966. He remained in that role for a decade. Then, almost as soon as his coaching career ended, it began anew.
By late 1976, Smalley was approached by athletic director Bo Coppedge to launch a women's basketball program for the newly co-ed Academy. For 12 more years, he nurtured it from junior varsity to varsity, and set the Mids up for their eventual transition from Division II to Division I.
Years later, in his capacity as an athletic administrator, Smalley was still a fixture at Navy basketball games. One could always spot him in the seats directly behind the Mids' bench.
Prior to his death in 2007, Smalley watched the rise and fall of Navy women's basketball. There were back-to-back appearances in the Patriot League final in 1998 and '99. Each, though, ended in a loss to Holy Cross.
He remained up close for the earliest of the seven losing seasons in a span of eight years. From 2000-08, the Mids were 1-9 in the postseason.
But in 2011, on the court named for Navy's original coach, the latest had directed her team to its 18th and 19th victories of the year, in the conference quarter's and semifinals. Now in the final - down a dozen, and down to a half to go - Pemper's Mids would reveal a side she had never seen before.
The second half began with a literal misstep by American, a sideline step-out by Leer. Twenty seconds later, freshman Alix Membreno launched a jumper from the corner. Without hesitation - you could even say, fearlessly - she swished the most important shot of Navy's night.
With the clock at 15:59, and the deficit at five, Membreno did it again, this time from the other corner. Junior Erin Edwards soon made it 32-32, tying the contest for the first time since the opening tip.
The crowd of 1,763, which was a testament to a strong marketing push by the Academy's Athletic Association to overcome the absence of Midshipmen during spring break, got engaged. Alumni Hall became enlivened.
To its credit, American, supported strongly by fans of its own, resolved to rebuild a five-point lead. Valiant sixth-year senior Nicole Ryan, twice a victim to season-ending injuries, lifted the Eagles to a 39-34 advantage.
There were 8 minutes, 44 seconds left. American had just scored its final field goal.
Talk about being relentless on defense.
Meanwhile, back on offense, Geif assisted a Myers' three-pointer, before scoring the tying basket. And at the 4:29 mark, a third plebe Audrey Bauer, continued her terrific half in reserve.
Left open on the left wing, and without trepidation, Bauer left her feet outside the arc and buried a jump shot that gave the Mids the lead for good. Across the way, yet another freshman, Kara Pollinger, hopped from one end of the bench to the other, high-fiving teammates and staff.
She was at it again when Membreno three-peated, making it 45-39. Two free throws by Edwards extended the difference to three possessions. The last point belonged to AU, a foul shot with 22 seconds on the clock.
In the aftermath, the Mids embraced, climbed the ladder to cut down the nets, and posed with their first-ever Patriot League championship trophy. At the other emotional extreme, various Eagles watched, wiping tears with their jerseys.
It was the unfettered emotion of college basketball in March.
AU was heartbroken for the second straight year, for the fourth time in as many Patriot League finals and for the sixth time overall in conference championships. Navy was overjoyed, over the crowning achievement of a journey that really began 34 years ago.
Reality beckoned on Monday, when the Mids learned that they will meet DePaul in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Navy is a No. 14 seed. The Blue Demons are seeded 3rd in the Philadelphia region and, with their 27 victories, ranked 10th by the Associated Press.
In November, the Mids lost to Villanova out of the Big East, by 13 points in Annapolis. DePaul won at Villanova by 19 in January. Whether judging by comparative scores or other measures, Navy's will be a tall order (the Demons feature four players 6-2 or taller vs. the Mids' one) this weekend in University Park, Pa.
But Pemper once helped another team scale even greater heights in the NCAA Tournament. Plus, by now, she knows what to expect.
The Mids should be relentless and fearless. What they shouldn't have, regardless of how intense the glare, is that deer-in-the-headlight moment.