The final buzzer sounded on the American women’s basketball team’s win over Navy for the Patriot League tournament championship, and all the Eagles players ran to the center of the floor to celebrate.
Well, all of them except forward Cecily Carl.
Carl, who led American with 20 points in the 58-49 victory that sealed the Eagles’ second NCAA tournament berth in four years, hunched over. In the same spot on the Bender Arena court where she had been playing defense moments earlier, the junior put her elbows to her knees, her face in her palms, and cried.
A team assistant came over to hug her and soon after, Carl joined the rest of her teammates in a jumping mosh pit. She then was named tournament MVP and cut down a piece of the net.
“I really can’t put it into words. It’s just pure joy,” said Carl, who in 2015 as a high school senior traveled from Mechanicsburg, Pa., to Northwest Washington to watch American win the Patriot League championship for the program’s first NCAA tournament berth. “You watch the tournament on TV when you don’t make the postseason, and now it’s going to be a reality, and that’s just crazy to me.”
Carl, a sophomore, also had eight defensive rebounds and two blocks in 37 minutes.
Navy Coach Stefanie Pemper called her “a big factor” after the game, the No. 3 seed Midshipmen’s second consecutive loss in the conference tournament final, because Carl didn’t play either time Navy and No. 1 seed American split two regular season meetings.
She missed the first — a 46-41 American home victory on Jan. 5 — with an illness and the second — a 74-49 Navy win in Annapolis on Feb. 28 — with a lower-back injury.
“She’s a really good player, obviously just won MVP of the tournament,” Pemper said. “So that didn’t necessarily work in our favor in kind of understanding what she likes to do, how she likes to do it.”
The victory improved a win total for American (26-6) that was already a program record. It also extended the Eagles’ win streak on their home court to 20, tied for fifth longest in Division I.
Navy (25-7), which was seeking its first NCAA berth since making three in a row from 2011 through 2013, also entered the game with a team record for victories. Senior guard Taylor Dunham led the Midshipmen with 14 points.
The Midshipmen held a 24-23 lead at halftime despite 13 points from Carl. American struggled with turnovers, however, and Navy had seven steals and four blocks before the break.
Dunham, the Midshipmen’s leading scorer at 14.7 points per game entering Saturday, scored nine straight to give the Midshipmen an early advantage while American endured a first-quarter scoring drought that lingered about 5½ minutes.
But American’s defense, Pemper said, improved after halftime, guarding the paint and not allowing the Midshipmen easy routes to the basket. Dunham didn’t score again until the fourth quarter.
“They just bring a lot of bodies,” Pemper said, “particularly to Taylor.”
American appeared ready to take control with a 14-2 run that lasted most of the third period.
“The third quarter was really important for us to gain the lead and keep the lead,” said American’s Megan Gebbia, the Patriot League coach of the year. “We just seemed to really turn it on and know that if we didn’t defend how we did in the second half, it would’ve been a longer game.”
But Navy, which upset No. 2 seed Bucknell in the Patriot League semifinals, buckled down.
The Midshipmen cut the deficit to 47-46 with 1:28 remaining on a midrange jump shot from senior guard Hannah Fenske (eight points).
Then they forced a turnover from American senior guard Emily Kinneston, the Patriot League player of the year, but Fenske’s ensuing layup attempt rolled around the rim before falling out.
From there, American made 11 of its 12 foul shots and held Navy scoreless until a three-pointer at the final buzzer.
“This was our goal, and we fell a little short,” Dunham said. “We’re keeping our fingers crossed for WNIT hopefully.”
Before the league’s trophy presentation, American distributed a “Tourney Ticket” to each player.
The rectangular pieces of paper highlighted the conference final’s time and date, declared the Eagles as Patriot League champions and had the same number bar code on each one: 256256256, a nod to the team’s record.
After the players finished posing for photos with the trophy, most having tied their piece of the net to their championship hats, Gebbia and Carl took a seat at the podium for a postgame news conference.
Kinneston, a freshman reserve on American’s last Patriot League tournament champion squad, walked in a few moments later with the bulk of the net draped around her neck.
“That,” Carl told her, “is a nice little necklace you’ve got there.”
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