Final Four on frontier for Lady Royals

Published: March 10, 2016

AQUINAS PHOTO / EMMA BLACK JUNIOR FORWARD Alexix Roman answers a question during the Lady Royals’ press conference in the John J. Long Center Wednesday. The Lady Royals enter the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA Tournament 29-0, looking to continue their remarkable season.

AQUINAS PHOTO / EMMA BLACK / JUNIOR FORWARD Alexix Roman answers a question during the Lady Royals’ press conference in the John J. Long Center Wednesday. The Lady Royals enter the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA Tournament 29-0, looking to continue their remarkable season.

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No. 3 in the nation. 29-0. Sweet Sixteen. A head coach who has not lost coaching women’s college basketball. The coaching staff, a player and a rookie: all tops in the Landmark Conference. Leading scorer in the conference.

Have won all 15 home games by double digits.

That is some of what the Lady Royals have done so far.

Now they are hosting the Sweet 16 Friday and if they win they will play Saturday, on Parade Day, to go to the Final Four.

But how has this season happened? It was not expected. This year’s team was not even predicted to win the conference by the conference’s coaches.

It made sense. From last year’s team, they lost the conference player of the year and fourth all-time scorer Meredith Mesaris and all-time assist leader Lindsay Fluehr, who is now an assistant coach with the team. This year’s team only returned two starters.

This is how this season has happened.

Enter: first-year point guard Bridgette Mann. Enter: Trevor Woodruff, the 11-year Misericordia University men’s basketball head coach. Develop: junior forwards Sarah Payonk and Alexix Roman. Remain: senior co-captain guards Jaclyn Gantz and Noelle Alicea.

I have broadcasted every Lady Royals’ home game with the exception of intersession games the past three years and this year’s team is by far the best of the three, although the 2014 team made it to the Sweet 16 as well.

Mann’s added scoring threat, Roman’s continued emergence as a Shaq-like paint presence, Payonk’s Draymond Green-like playmaking, and the seniors Alicea and Gantz’s leadership, shooting and defense have helped bring this team to the next level.

As the team’s third different head coach in as many years, Trevor Woodruff has brought outstanding play calling, descriptive instruction and care of his team as players and people.

He has clearly defined each player’s role, and it is obvious these women love playing for him. This team is completely selfless. An attribute exemplified by the co-captains, Alicea and Gantz, who score the fewest points of the starters despite being seniors, and play completely for the team. On the selfless topic, the Lady Royals average 18.4 assists per game, which is seventh best in the country.

Oh yeah, then there is the defense. Allowing about 50 points per game, which is 17th in the country. They held this weekend’s opponents, the Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Marymount University, to 42 and 44 points respectively, and WPI and Marymount were the labeled the defensive juggernauts allowing the third and fourth fewest points in the country respectively.
The next step?

The Lady Royals make the Final Four.

Why? If they have a weakness, please point it out.

The Lady Royals scored 60 points against both of the stellar defenses last weekend and Christopher Newport University (24-4) is weak inside. This will allow the Lady Royals’ best frontcourt in the country to shine. To get here, Payonk and Roman combined for 41 points, 18 rebounds, and Payonk added 5 assists on Saturday.

Also, Christopher Newport lost to Marymount, the team Scranton beat last game, by 5 and 6 points this season while Scranton beat Marymount by 14.

Point guard Mann had great games of 17 and 18 points in the teams’ two games before Saturday, but struggled in the last game while uncharacteristically committing nine of the team’s 19 turnovers. Mann and the team have been working on breaking the press this week and the guards’ ball control will be crucial as Christopher Newport averages about 15 steals per game.

If the team wins Friday in the Sweet 16, which I believe they will, they will face the winner of Albright College (27-2) and Tufts University (25-3) on Saturday at 5 p.m.

On paper, the potential matchup in the Elite 8 against Tufts would be scary for the Lady Royals. Tufts defeated Moravian, the Lady Royals’ conference foe this season, 65-45 to get to the Sweet 16. The Lady Royals’ had their closest test of the year when Moravian took them to overtime Feb. 3 before they prevailed 70-65.

The combined record of the four teams playing in Scranton this weekend is 105-9.

If Mann can control the ball, Roman increases her aggression gaining post position, Payonk continues dishing and Alicea and Gantz continue swishing, the Lady Royals will reach the Final Four for the first time since 2006.

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