When the Patriot League women’s basketball tournament began on March 1, Navy wasn’t even considered the best team from the Washington area in its own conference. That distinction belonged to American, which went undefeated during league play and earned the tournament’s top seed.
But when the final buzzer sounded Saturday night in the Patriot League final, neither record nor style of play mattered. In an entertaining but sometimes sloppy game, the third-seeded Midshipmen beat No. 5 Holy Cross, 57-48, at Alumni Hall to earn their second straight – and second ever — trip to the NCAA tournament.
Sophomore forward Jade Geif paced the Midshipmen, getting timely buckets in the second half to finish with a career-high 22 points and seven rebounds. Guard Alix Membreno added 13 points and sophomore Kara Pollinger chipped in 10 points for a Navy team that has just one senior on its roster.
“It’s such an incredible feeling that you can’t compare it [to] a different one, the first one,” said Geif, who earned tournament MVP honors for a second consecutive year. “It’s what we’ve dreamed of. You can’t compare it to anything.”
Similar to last season’s Patriot League final, when Navy trailed 30-18 at halftime before beating American, the Midshipmen’s return trip to the NCAA tournament was due in large part to a dominating second half in which the Midshipmen outscored Holy Cross, 39-23.
Down seven at halftime, Navy (18-13) went on an 11-3 run and took its first lead of the game since the score was 2-0 when Geif completed a three-point play with 17 minutes remaining.
But Holy Cross sophomore Alex Smith wouldn’t allow the Crusaders (18-14) to wilt just yet. After a three-pointer by Pollinger gave the Midshipmen a 36-32 lead, Smith hit another three-pointer and then got a steal and a fast-break layup to put Holy Cross back in the lead.
That, though, would be the Crusaders’ last basket for nearly nine minutes, and Geif took advantage. She quickly scored four points consecutive points and the Midshipmen went on another 11-3 run to take a 47-40 lead they would never relinquish. Navy held Holy Cross to just six field goals and 24 percent shooting in the second half.
“You could look at her and she knew we were going to win this game, and it was inspirational to me and the rest of the team,” Pollinger said of Geif. “When we get the ball into Jade’s hands, we know she’s going to score.”
Both teams entered Saturday’s final as somewhat surprising participants. Though the Midshipmen began this season as the defending Patriot League champions, they ended the regular season by losing three of their final four games. Holy Cross, meanwhile, upset American in the tournament’s semifinal.
Even more puzzling were the two regular season games. Navy and Holy Cross played against each other. In January, the Crusaders beat the Midshipmen by 17 in Annapolis only to watch Navy return the favor and win by 17 in Worcester, Mass., last month.
Early on, it seemed the Midshipmen could find themselves in another blowout when they fell behind 9-2 to open the contest and shot just 28 percent from the field in the first half. But just like the trajectory of its entire season, Navy hit its stride in the nick of time.
“We definitely never got on a roll this year, but we’re on a roll now,” Midshipmen Coach Stefanie Pemper said. “It’s really sweet.”