NEAC Championship: Keuka 66, SUNYIT 63
UTICA, N.Y. – Despite a championship-caliber performance, the SUNYIT Wildcats came up just short in their 2011-12 NEAC Championship match up with defending champs Keuka. Sophomore Jessica Bandrowski had a career day in the upset for the Storm, scoring 30 points on 7-12 from long-range.
In their third and final pairing of the season, neither team was one to disappoint. The action started right from the tip, as Bandrowski came out firing for the Storm with three 3-pointers in the first four minutes of the game, giving Keuka a 12-2 lead and forcing SUNYIT Coach Jess Skelton to call a thirty-second timeout.
The breather was invigorating for Wildcat forward Kayla McNeil (Stillwater, N.Y. / Stillwater). The 5'10" junior knocked down two baskets in a row coming out of the play stoppage, including a three-point play on a turnaround jumper on which she was fouled. After McNeil knocked down the freebie, NEAC Player of the Year Lyndsey Brognano (Rome, N.Y. / RFA) finally got into the mix with a steal. Brognano was fouled on the ensuing breakaway and went to the line. After making the first, the 5'5" guard missed the second; luckily SUNYIT forward Ashley Schmidt (Camden, N.Y. / Camden) was there with the offensive rebound. Schmidt immediately kicked it back out to Brognano, who buried a three-pointer right in front of the Wildcat student section, nearly erasing the Storm's early run and bringing SUNYIT to within three amidst deafening cheers from the SUNYIT faithful.
SUNYIT's early comeback would prove little more than foreshadowing, however. With 7:45 to play in the first half and SUNYIT leading by just one, 22-21, the Wildcats finally took the governor off. Again it was McNeil getting things started, hitting a jumper to spark a 15-1 SUNYIT run that saw the Wildcats take a 37-22 lead with just 2:26 to go in the period.
While coaches and pundits are usually loathe to point to specific plays or stretches as the "deciding factor" in a loss or win, what happened next may have spelled doom for the Wildcats long before the final buzzer sounded. After a layup by Storm guard Taylor Szwec, Bandrowski found her stroke again and proceeded to bury another three 3-pointers over the final 2:26 of the half. The final, and most improbable one, came with just two seconds left in the half. Still up seven, the Wildcats elected to soft-play the Keuka inbound. The move forced a desperation heave from just beyond half-court by none other than Bandrowski. The ball swished flawlessly through the hoop as the halftime buzzer was sounding, leaving an astonished Wildcat crowd to ponder how their team's 15-point lead had dwindled to just four, 39-34, in the blink of an eye.
With the momentum clearly in their corner, the Storm seized on the shell-shocked Wildcats out of the half, scoring seven unanswered points in the first 1:04 of the second half to reclaim the lead (41-39) for the first time since the clock showed 13:12 in the first half.
To their credit, though, the Wildcats battled back. After facing their largest deficit of the half at 57-50, Lyndsey Brognano got SUNYIT started again with a pair of free throws at 6:57. Moments later she added a layup, and then, with 5:03 left, Brognano would be the benefactor of a great transition-find by senior Wildcat captain Kwanisha Jones (Philadelphia, N.Y. / Indian River). The 5'2" guard drove the lane, jump-stopped, and whipped a perfect strike to Brognano, who was setting up on the right wing. Brognano drilled the trey to cap an 8-0 SUNYIT run, giving SUNYIT the lead again, 58-57.
The Wildcats would hold the lead again at 61-60 after two big free throws by Kayla McNeil, but a Taylor Szwec three-pointer seconds later but Keuka back on top for good. SUNYIT would have a chance down three with seven seconds left, but – in what turned out to be an unfortunately familiar theme for the Wildcats – the team was unable to get the ball into the hands of the conference's best three-point shooter, Lyndsey Brognano, and a desperation heave by McNeil fell short at the buzzer.
Brognano battled her way to 17 points on the day, but was frustrated all game by a box-and-one defense from Keuka. Credit Bandrowski, who added to her dazzling offensive display by hounding Brognano on defense. Nevertheless, Brognano was critical in the Wildcats' two biggest runs, and showed a packed-house exactly why she was voted NEAC Player of the Year, finishing the tournament with a combined 39 points, including 9 three-pointers.
Almost as impressive for the Wildcats was McNeil. The junior had a team-high 19 points, including several baskets to either tie the score or give SUNYIT the lead, and led the team in rebounds as well with 11, making her the only player on the afternoon with a double-double. Despite struggling with her shot, senior and true team-leader Kwanisha Jones played a solid game, leading all players with 8 assists and 3 steals.
The Wildcats were also lifted by seniors Caitlin Cottell (Eatontown, N.J. / Red Bank Catholic) and Sarah Couvillon (Saratoga Springs, N.Y. / Saratoga Springs). The former scored 15 points in 23 minutes for the Wildcats, including a number of crowd-pleasing drives to the basket during the Wildcats first-half run, while the latter registered a game-high 4 blocks in just 16 minutes off the bench.
Despite the loss, the Wildcats finish the season a school-best 22-5. By winning the North Division of the NEAC, SUNYIT earned the right to host the NEAC Championship Tournament for the first time ever. The team had three starters named to the NEAC All-Conference Teams (see Photo Gallery), and led the conference in numerous statistical categories.
NEAC Champions Keuka will now await the NCAA Selection Show, after earning the conference's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. For her weekend effort, Jessica Bandrowski was named Tournament MVP (see Photo Gallery).