With less than a minute to go in Saturday night’s Patriot League women’s basketball tournament final, Navy junior guard Kara Pollinger came out of the game and shared a long embrace with Coach Stefanie Pemper.
By that time, the second-seeded Midshipmen were well on their way to a 72-53 win against No. 4 seed Holy Cross in front of 1,554 at Alumni Hall, and the two were thoroughly enjoying what moments later would be a third consecutive Patriot League tournament title and the corresponding berth in the NCAA tournament.
Pollinger’s 24 points, including 6 of 10 on three-pointers, matched a career high and were a large part of the narrative, and reserve sophomore guard Chloe Stapleton added 19 points. But Navy also got significant contributions from the rest of its starting lineup — all juniors — to become the second program in Patriot League history to win three straight tournament titles.
“It’s just such a journey, such a grind,” Pemper said. “These women worked really hard and long in a lot of different ways. Mentally, physically, emotionally.
“It just feels really great for them.”
Guard Alix Membreno was named tournament MVP with 10 points, seven assists and six rebounds in the final. In three tournament games, Membreno had 38 points, 28 rebounds and 21 assists.
Forward Jade Geif added nine points and a game-high 12 rebounds for Navy, which shot 45 percent from three-point range and 45 percent from the field overall. Geif was named first-team all-tournament after winning tournament MVP the previous two seasons.
“I think each one is special in its own way,” Membreno said. “It’s a different team every year. What’s really awesome about this one is we’re all coming back next year.
“You don’t have that emotional, losing-a-senior type of feeling, which is different, but it’s also really nice.”
As crisply as they shot from long range and moved the ball around the perimeter, the Midshipmen gave no quarter defensively either, limiting the Patriot League’s top three-point shooting team to 4 of 20 from that distance.
The Crusaders (18-14) entered making 34 percent from three-point range but missed 9 of 10 from beyond the arc in the first half.
Navy (21-11), meantime, used a 12-0 flurry with 13 minutes 48 seconds left until intermission to gain initial separation. The run began with a steal and layup from Pollinger, who was fouled and made the bonus free throw to put the Midshipmen ahead to stay, 10-9.
Geif followed with a jumper, and Pollinger made 1 of 2 foul shots for a 13-9 advantage.
Then, with Holy Cross collapsing on Geif in the paint, Stapleton found herself with consecutive open shots from three-point range and sank both to force a timeout by Crusaders Coach Bill Gibbons.
The Crusaders got within six points five and a half minutes into the second half on a three-pointer by junior guard Alex Smith, but consecutive three-pointers by Stapleton and Pollinger expanded the lead to 45-33, and Navy’s advantage did not dip below nine points the rest of the way.
“Each season obviously has its own story,” Pollinger said. “It always has its ups and downs, and the game-by-game process, it just always feels great at the end of the season to reach that final of what you’ve been looking forward to the whole season.”