Heading into this year’s hoops season, the AU men’s basketball team garnered all the attention because of their back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances. Two straight Patriot League tournament titles and a near upset of the nationally ranked Villanova Wildcats will naturally thrust a program into the spotlight.
But with the AU men’s squad hurt by the graduation of its top players last year, the historic season put forth by the AU women’s team flew under the radar.
Head Coach Matt Corkery was promoted to his current position on May 19, 2008, after serving as AU’s associate Head Coach during the 2007-2008 season. Corkery took over for Melissa McFerrin, who guided the Eagles to the 2008 Patriot League regular season championship and picked up right where she left off.
Corkery has compiled a 41-22 record while at AU and was named Patriot League Coach of the Year this past season. His focused, confident demeanor on the sidelines has paid off in a big way for his team.
“He had a huge impact on the way we performed,” rising senior Liz Leer said of Corkery. “He always was focused on the next game and he brought our energy and excitement to the next level.”
A firm believer in the “defense wins championships” philosophy, Corkery and his team executed their defensive gameplan flawlessly on most nights. The Eagles led the Patriot League both in scoring defense and blocked shots.
“We take a lot of pride in defense, and we feel that’s something you could do well every night,” Corkery said. “I think that was really key for our success.”
Things did not always go so smoothly for the AU women, as they split their 18 non-conference games.
“The difference was injuries,” Corkery said. “We were playing with a lot of injuries in November and December. We got healthy in January.”
But for schools not from the power conferences, conference play is the true barometer of a successful season.
“Conference play is completely different from non-conference play,” Leer said, who was a first team All-Patriot League selection.
The Eagles ended up making a huge statement in the first game of Patriot League play. Their conference opener saw them take on the Lehigh Mountain Hawks, the preseason favorites in the PL.
AU defeated Lehigh 69-65 in overtime, thanks to 32 points from Michelle Kirk. This game showed that these two teams were the class of the conference, and that the NCAA tournament bid would go to one of these two clubs. Also, it showed the playmaking ability of Kirk, who would go on to be named the Patriot League player of the year.
Despite his team winning its first seven conference games, Corkery decided to tinker with the starting lineup and swapped Lisa Strack for Ebony Edwards.
“I think it was a situation where Lisa had been doing a lot of things coming off the bench,” Corkery said. “After we [moved her], there [was] a little bit of an adjustment period for both her and Ebony. Both of the players did it very willingly.”
Highlighting the team’s chemistry and cohesiveness, the starting lineup change did not derail a successful season. The Eagles won six of their seven remaining regular season games after the switch, with the only loss coming on the road against Lehigh.
“I think we had a team willing to give up personal accolades for the good of the team,” Corkery said.
AU entered the conference tournament at 20-8, with a 13-1 conference record. They were not done there though and continued to set milestones. The 13 PL victories set a record for most conference wins in program history. It was also the first time ever that two AU players had been named to the All-Patriot League first team (Kirk and Leer). It was only the fourth 20-win season ever in AU women’s basketball history.
“We didn’t pay attention to records we were breaking or anything like that,” Leer said. “But at the end of the season, it’s great to look up at those things.”
Entering the conference tournament as the number 2 seed, the Eagles won their quarterfinal and semifinal games by a combined 53 points, the largest margin of victory in the first two rounds in PL Tournament History. These two victories set up a rubber match between Lehigh and AU.
Lehigh defeated AU 58-42 in the final, as the Eagles fell one victory short of reaching the “Big Dance.”
“It was incredibly disappointing,” Corkery said. “We had a great opportunity to win that game and a great opportunity to head to the NCAA Tournament.”
The Eagles’ final record stood at 22-10 and 13-1 in the conference, as a loss to the Old Dominion Monarchs in the WNIT ended their campaign.
Despite two losses to end the season, Corkery and crew are putting together a program that has the tools to be regularly competitive at AU. He has the trust of his players and leads a team that has fun playing with each other.
“This year I think was one of the best years I ever experienced at AU,” Leer said. “As a whole, we wanted to have fun and we needed to do that in order to win.”
If you didn’t pay attention to the team this year, you need to do so next year. Ohemaa Nyanin and Nicole Ryan will graduate, but the team will return five of its top six scorers.
While this year’s postseason just wrapped up, the Eagles are already preparing to make a significant impact next year.
“Our expectations are very high for next year,” Leer said. “It’s driving us all throughout our postseason workouts.”
With a wealth of talent returning, the Eagles hope to be playing on ESPN in March, on a national stage and no longer under the radar.