Women’s basketball advances to semifinals with a chance to avenge last year’s loss to BU

Win over Army gives Gebbia her eighth-straight opening-round victory

Women’s basketball advances to semifinals with a chance to avenge last year’s loss to BU

AU women's basketball gathers in Jan. 9 game against Lehigh.

As the Bender Arena buzzers hit double zeroes, the American University women’s basketball team got to experience a rare moment of levity. The Eagles, who had fewer regular-season games played (9) than canceled or postponed (11), earned the chance to play at least one more round. 

The third-seeded Eagles (7-3, 7-3) rolled over a rusty Army squad (9-11, 6-9) Saturday 76-56, advancing to the Patriot League Semifinals where they will look to avenge last year’s quarterfinal-round loss against second-seeded Boston University (11-2). All they wanted was that opportunity.

While Army came into the game looking for a potential upset, AU head coach Megan Gebbia doesn’t go home easily. The eighth-year head coach is now a spotless 8-0 in opening-round games. 

“I always believe that the first game in the tournament is the hardest one to get through,” Gebbia said. “We haven't played in 10 days, but just that first one, it’s ‘get the jitters out, we know it's March Madness’ and get through it … but overall just a great team effort.”

Though early turnovers plagued both teams, AU was the beneficiary of sophomore forward Karla Vres’ defensive masterclass in the first quarter. Vres had four blocks in the first six minutes of the contest, propelling AU to a hot start and drawing raucous energy from the Eagles bench. 

The AU backcourt carried the offense early, as junior guards Jade Edwards and Emily Fisher constantly found ways to the rim off-the-dribble and with timely backdoor cuts. Fisher finished with 19 points, while Edwards added 16. An 11-2 run to end the first quarter gave AU a 13-8 cushion to enter the second frame. From there, the game only got more out of hand.

“I think part of that is they played man,” Gebbia said. “I think we felt comfortable with running our man stuff and getting layups. … I think if anything, this group understands what our strengths are and we played to our strengths in the first half.”

AU continued to put its foot on the gas, outscoring Army 22-7 in the second quarter with Fisher sparking much of the team’s energy. She has starred for the Eagles, averaging 14 points per game over the team’s last four contests.

“I think she's able to make the right decisions on offense, and she's always been a player who to me, and maybe I'm wrong, doesn't really get nervous,” Gebbia said. “She's gonna attack regardless, and most of the time it works out in her favor.”

As the game carried on, both teams continued to cough up the ball, but only AU capitalized with 27 of its season-high 76 points coming off turnovers. Army, who averaged about 16 turnovers per game during the regular season, had already matched that mark several minutes into the second half, which gave AU plenty of extra opportunities. 

A third-quarter fastbreak not only highlighted AU’s strength in transition, but also effectively put a bow on the opponent’s season.

“On offense, I think it's just getting the ball and running transition, our team really loves transition,” Fisher said. “When they run the floor, it gets the defensive person to draw them and then I’m able to go down the lane and score.”

The Eagles forced Army to beat them from outside, and time-after-time, the Knights were unable to convert. Army shot 1-13 from deep in the first half, and though AU gave them plenty of space on the initial catch, the shots often ended with a strong contest at the point of release. It’s hard to win a game with Army’s shooting marks — a lesson the Knights learned the hard way. And while the Knights’ 11 offensive rebounds and the Eagle’s 22 turnovers would have kept Army in most games, it simply couldn’t put the ball in the hoop. 

“It was a really fun game for everyone you know we scored a lot in transition,” Edwards said. “There was a lot of energy. And that carried out through the whole game.”

To Gebbia's delight, several underclassmen also stepped up, including freshman forward Emily Johns.

“I mean Emily Johns, she played 12 minutes and scored 13 points. It’s just unbelievable what that kid is capable of doing,” Gebbia said. “We know she can score so they want to get her the ball inside that she's a good finisher, she’s got great hands. For her, it’s like, ‘do you make the right decision when you get it.’”

Junior forward Taylor Brown, who has served as the defense’s connective tissue all season, helped run a strong defensive game in the first half, holding Army to just 15 points. But the team’s weak point Sunday was its second-half interior defense, as Army forwards Sabria Hunter and Taylor Sullivan combined for 29 points. 

Some of the Knights' issues were symptomatic of pandemic fatigue. Army hadn’t seen the court since Valentine’s Day and had two starters under minutes restrictions due to the school’s coronavirus protocols. 

Army’s loss was a curtain call for head coach Dave Magarity. He announced in January that he would retire after over 1,000 games on the bench. 

AU’s upcoming bout against Boston University is scheduled for Thursday at Case Gym in Boston. The winner will advance to the Patriot League Championship to face the winner of Bucknell and Lehigh’s game. There is plenty of animosity between the two squads after the Terriers knocked AU out of the playoffs last year.

“There’s definitely still a bad feeling for the returners,” Edwards said. “We sent out Katie [Marenyi] and Morgan [Bartner] in a tough loss, you know, we thought we should have won that game. I think it's a good chance for us to make up for it. Even on their court in the semifinals. I know we're really motivated to play them.”

For Gebbia, it’s all about testing negative. Gebbia said the team starts testing every day beginning on Tuesday.

“That probably makes me more nervous than the opponent,” she said. 

snusbaum@theeagleonline.com

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