For Mount St. Mary’s women’s basketball head coach Maria Marchesano, the expectation for her team this year was simple: win a championship. It wasn’t a lofty goal. The Mountaineers returned 96 percent of their minutes played and 98 percent of their scoring from a team that went 20-11 in 2019-20 and finished third in the Northeast conference.
When the season was shut down last year due to COVID-19, Mount St. Mary’s was getting ready to play in the NEC tournament semifinals against Fairleigh Dickinson, and Marchesano thought her team could win that game and the final to get to the program’s first NCAA Tournament since 1995.
The Mountaineers did exactly that this year, first winning the NEC regular-season title for the first time since 2000-01 with a 56-43 win against St. Francis (PA) March 1. For their efforts in the regular season, Marchesano was named Coach of the Year and redshirt senior guard Kendall Bresee was named both NEC Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year. The Mountaineers then won the NEC tournament, beating Wagner, 70-38, in the final.
That’s why, despite losing 98-45 to Maryland in the NCAA, senior Rebecca Lee was more grateful for her time at the Mount than sad about the loss. The Mountaineers improved every year Lee and her fellow seniors were in Emmittsburg, Md., culminating in the tournament berth this year.
“It’s been an amazing experience, especially with COVID,” Lee said. “Our season could’ve ended at any time, but to be able to go this far and to do well up until this point, I really appreciate that and really appreciate my teammates.”
Despite meeting their goals, the season didn’t come without challenges. Mount St. Mary’s had four regular non-conference games canceled, including one with the Terps that was scheduled for Dec. 8. After defeating UMBC, 72-58, on Dec. 5, the Mountaineers didn’t play again for 33 days. During that time, senior Jattarikah Settle and junior Taylor Addison, two players expected to play major minutes this year, left the program, with Settle later transferring to UMBC.
The COVID troubles persisted throughout conference play, as 10 NEC games were postponed. Five were made up, and Mount St. Mary’s ended the regular season playing eight games in 14 days.
“This team just rolls with the punches,” Marchesano said. “We’ve faced a lot of adversity, but they’re really great at staying positive and taking things and looking at it from a positive light. Obviously they’ve had their ups and downs like every team this year, but the way they bounced back from shutdowns or from positive tests or games getting canceled when it wasn’t our fault, the way they continued to work all year, just shows you what kind of people they are.”
After winning the NEC tournament, the Mountaineers were given a No. 15 seed in the NCAA Tournament and a first-round matchup against Maryland. That would be a challenge in any year, but especially since this season since the team didn’t play any non-conference games against power-conference foes like they would in a normal year. To start the 2019-20 season, Mount St. Mary’s played at Kentucky and Indiana, and both teams were projected to make the NCAA Tournament last year.
The Mount didn’t look fazed early, hitting three of its first six shots (including two threes) and four free throws to trail 13-12 with 5:11 remaining in the first quarter. It was a better start than many teams had this year against the Terps, who average an NCAA-best 91.8 points per game and look to dominate from the opening tip.
That Maryland team showed up the rest of the way, outscoring the Mount 15-6 to end the quarter and then 25-4 in the second quarter on its way to a 98-45 win. The Terps continued to play at their usual pedal-to-the-metal tempo, and the Mountaineers couldn’t keep up. As Maryland continued to push, Mount St. Mary’s tired and it looked like they lost its legs, only shooting 24.6 from the field and 22.2 percent from 3-point range.
“There’s multiple pros on that team,” Marchesano said. “Five, six, seven, maybe eight WNBA players in that program. … They kicked our butts [March 22]. Our girls scrapped and I’m really proud of how we played, but that’s an elite basketball team, and there’s not much you can do with that.”
The blowout loss, however, didn’t do anything to dull what had been one of the best seasons in program history. Marchesano is grateful for a senior class that stuck with her when she was hired (May 2017) and led the team back to the NCAA Tournament four years later.
Lee (9.7 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game in 2020-21), Kayla Agentowicz (6.2 points, 3.6 rebounds) and Bridget Birkhead (7.2 points) have been with Marchesano every step of the way, while Bresee (13.7 points, 8.5 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 2.1 steals) transferred in from George Washington before the 2018-19 season and was a difference maker the past two years.
Lee echoed her coach’s sentiments, as she and three other seniors were able to meet the goal they set for the team at the beginning of the season and elevate the program in the process.
“It’s been really great,” Lee said. “Each year since freshman year we got closer and closer, and it was really disappointing when it got cut junior year because we thought we were going to go all the way — and then we proved to everyone that we could go all the way this year. So to really end on a high not is very satisfying to us because there was a lot of factors in this year that made us a little iffy like, ‘Are we going to get there?’ But then we got there and this is our moment.”
Update: Maria Marchesano took the head coaching job at Purdue Fort Wayne. Antoine White has taken over as the Mount’s head coach.
Photo Credit: 2021 NCAA Photos