Tied at 36 in an epic America East showdown with first place on the line, the Hartford women’s basketball team found themselves with the ball in the closing seconds on the road at Vermont, a team which eliminated them from championship contention a year ago. The Hawks couldn’t have scripted a more thrilling ending.When Hartford sophomore Ilicia Mathis attacked the right side of the basket and took a layup that rolled around and out, it appeared the game was going into overtime. That’s when senior Diana Delva soared out of nowhere to out muscle two Vermont defenders and snatch the rebound, sending it up and through the rim as she was falling out of bounds with two seconds to go.
That basket proved to be the game winner as Vermont failed to score in the final seconds, and the Hawks claimed an important 38-36 win over the Catamounts who were picked to finish first in the America East pre-season coaches poll. The Hawks (17-3, 8-0 America East) who are unbeaten in America East action so far, are riding a 10-game winning streak and sitting in first place in the conference standings.
“I was just trying to go up strong and focus on the finish because I knew they wouldn’t call a foul,” said Delva of her late game heroics, “being able to finish a game like that out on the road against a tough team like Vermont just shows how everyone on this team is fighting for each other and finding a way to contribute.”
Delva, currently second in the entire nation in field goal percentage making 65 percent of her shots while also leading the America East in rebounding, was the only player to reach double figure scoring in the game finishing with 20 points. She also hauled down 12 rebounds and five blocks.
The Hawks, who lead the league in scoring defense, held the highest scoring team in the league to just 36 points on 25 percent field-goal shooting. Catamount guard’s Courtnay Pilypaitis and May Kotsopoulos, who are in the top three in the league in scoring averaging a combined 33 points per game, were held to a combined 16 points on 7-30 shooting from the floor. Both players were forced into three turnovers each.
“We know we are going to have nights when the scoring will come easier for us, but when we defend like this it helps us win games even when we aren’t shooting well,” said head coach Jen Rizzotti.
It was clear the game was going to be a defensive battle from the opening tip, as both teams were locked at two points apiece with six minutes gone by in the first half before Hartford freshman Alex Hall exploded for five quick points in less than a minute to put Hartford up 7-2 with just over 13 minutes to play in the half. Vermont battled back to score eight straight points and claim a 10-7 lead with seven minutes remaining in the half.
The Catamounts went into the locker-room with a slim 16-14 lead thanks to six late points from Kotsopoulos including a mid-range jumper with a second to go.
A jumper by Hartford freshman Ruthanne Doherty from the high-post tied the score to start the second half and ignited what would be an exciting back and forth period.
Just when it appeared Vermont was claiming some momentum as they built a 27-22 lead with 10:43 left in the game on a free throw by Kotsopoulos, Delva rallied the Hawks back in the game scoring five quick points to tie it up.
The game would go on to feature four lead changes and two ties to set up the thrilling final minute of action. An off balanced runner by Mathis put the Hawks up 36-34 with 43 seconds to play, but Vermont knotted up the score seconds later when freshman Lauren Buschmann grabbed an offensive rebound and got fouled going up for the put-back. After making both free throws, the Hawks called time out with 16 seconds left to set up the final play which saw Delva send the Hawks back to Hartford with the win.
“She played like a senior who wanted to win,” said Hartford coach Jen Rizzotti after the game of Delva, “she defensively understands what it takes and where she needs to be and how to stay out of foul trouble. Offensively, it seemed like she wanted to score every time she touched the ball in the second half and she produced when she needed to. She was really the best player on the floor tonight.”
Another key for the Hawks was being able to secure the win without starting forward Erica Beverly for most of the game. Beverly, who was named America East Player of the Week on Monday, played just 14 minutes in the first half and didn’t return for the second after experiencing lower back pain.
“It just says a lot about all of the players on this team to be able to win,” added
Delva, “we aren’t a one or two person team. Everyone has been finding a way to contribute and step up for each other when we need it.”
Doherty added a game high 13 rebounds while Hall and Mathis each scored five points for the Hawks off of the bench.
The game had much more than first place on the line. The Catamounts (16-5, 6-2 AE), who a week ago were ranked 24 in the AP Top 25 poll, were looking to win and keep their hopes for home-court advantage in the America East Championship game should they advance that far in the tournament this March. With a new format this year, the title game is going to be played on the higher seed’s home court. The Hawks now hold at least a two game advantage over every team in the league.
In the latest ESPN/USA Today Top 25 poll which was released hours before the game, Hartford received 16 votes and was two teams out of the rankings. The Hawks entered the game after winning their last three games over Maine, Boston University and Albany by a combined 22 points and holding them to an average of 39 points per game.
Against Albany this past Sunday, Delva led the way with 16 points and 9 rebounds while Beverly chipped in a double-double of 10 points and 11 rebounds.
Hartford now gets ready to travel to Long Island this weekend for a rematch against the Stony Brook Seawolves. It the first matchup this year, the Hawks took care of business with a 65-38 win behind 20 points and eight rebounds from Delva. Their next home game is next Tuesday against UMBC at 7 p.m..
Photo by Adam Manison