No. 2 Riverdale Baptist reached its division final in the Nike Tournament of Champions in Arizona, a satisfying achievement for a team seeking an accomplishment to call its own after graduating seven Division I players.
“We had eight kids who never knew what the Nike Tournament of Champions is really about,” said first-year Riverdale Coach Sam Caldwell, whose team fell 96-74 to Mater Dei (Calif.), ranked third in USA Today, which hit 13 of 17 three-point attempts. “We already have our sights set on winning it next year.”
But then the Crusaders (13-2) returned home and lost their first game in the National Title IX Holiday Invitational Classic at Trinity University to South Medford (Ore.). That team was 30-0 last season, but it felt like a bit of a letdown for Riverdale. The team travels so much that the local tournament, to some, felt like theirs to win.
“I think we kind of came into it a little too confident,” said junior guard Chloe Jackson, who made the all-tournament team at both events. “We weren’t prepared to lose that game. We needed to win that.”
The Crusaders recovered to knock off Aberdeen (the top-ranked team in the Baltimore Sun) and Southwest DeKalb (Ga.), but because of the first-round loss, an anticipated matchup with No. 5 Good Counsel, the tournament champion, did not materialize.
“When you’re a young team, trying to play consistent is something that you have to work on all the time,” said Caldwell, whose top four scorers are junior guards. “And with our schedule, sometimes it’s kind of difficult for our girls to do that, especially when they’re still jelling together. But I’m not disappointed in what we’ve done so far.”
Riverdale will travel to Las Vegas for two games in mid-January and also has added Shabazz (N.J.) to the schedule for Jan. 12 in Virginia Beach, bumping a previous date with Potomac (Va.) to possibly later in the season. Shabazz handed Good Counsel one of its two losses.
On Jan. 11, the day Riverdale hosts No. 11 Bullis, the Crusaders will receive their rings from winning the National Association of Christian Athletics championship last season.
The star of that team, 2012 All-Met Player of the Year Jonquel Jones, is living locally again. Jones recently transferred from Clemson to George Washington, where former Riverdale Coach Diane Richardson is an assistant.
Jones moved here from the Bahamas to live with Richardson and play at Riverdale.
After using a makeshift lineup for much of the season, McLean has settled into a rotation and Saturday won the Pohanka Chantilly Basketball Classic. The Highlanders (6-3) will resume Virginia AAA Liberty District play on a six-game winning streak.
“It was the first time I’ve been part of a holiday tournament championship, so it was good for me,” ninth-year McLean Coach Mike O’Brien said, “but the kids themselves talk about trying to get on a winning streak and expect to win, so they’re feeling pretty good about it.”
Senior forward Lisa Murphy, a Carnegie Mellon recruit, was named the tournament’s most valuable player. She totaled 44 points and 16 rebounds in wins over Richmond area school Mills Godwin, six-time defending ISL AA champion Georgetown Visitation and George Mason, which has won three of the past four Virginia A Division 2 titles. McLean allowed 35 points or fewer in all three games.
The Highlanders’ three losses came against teams with a combined 28-5 record, and in those games, they were without two key post players. Since then, junior forward Maia Lee has returned from a knee injury to help spur the winning streak. Lee has offers from Virginia Commonwealth, Towson and James Madison. She totaled 28 points and 25 rebounds in the tournament. Senior guard Shellie Kaniut (Emory) totaled 27 points.
Even with Lee’s return, McLean is without three of its top eight players. Of the three, senior guard Evelyn Robinson, the team’s starting point guard the second half of last season, is the one most likely to return.
“We’ve pretty much adjusted,” O’Brien said. “At the beginning of the year, we were learning how to do our rotations and what to run without that depth.”
One plus has been the return of junior point guard Elena Karakozoff, a stabilizing influence back from an ACL tear.