BRIDGEWATER – All season long, first-year head coach Sarah Mathews talked to her team about playing their best basketball at the end of the season.
Her team must have been listening.
The Eagles needed to win their final three regular season games in order to secure a home game in the first round of the ODAC tournament. Mission accomplished.
The Eagles turned their game up another notch Monday evening against Roanoke when they may have played their best half of basketball of the season. The Eagles were up 53-29 at half, led by 42 points at the end of three quarters and finished with an 86-68 victory to advance to the tournament quarterfinals on Thursday at the Salem Civic Center.
"They played loose, but they were really focused," Mathews said of her team's Monday evening performance. "They did a really nice job of executing our game plan. The kids are really excited. It's sort of a focused, fun vibe that we have going right now. I'm really proud of the way they came out and played against Roanoke.
"And," Mathews continued, "it helps when you make shots."
The Eagles made shots against Roanoke, especially from long range. Bridgewater shot better than 50 percent (19-for-37) in the first two quarters in building up the big halftime lead. For the game, the team made 10-of-16 shots from 3-point range. That's 62.5 percent.
The victory sends the Eagles to the tournament quarterfinals where they will face Randolph-Macon, the tournament's No. 2 seed.
The Yellow Jackets pose the toughest matchup in the tournament with 6-foot-3 sophomore center Kelly Williams roaming the paint.
"Yeah, they're a really tough matchup. Their post players are so good," said Mathews. "The game we played in the regular season, they had two players combine for 31 rebounds. We have to find a way to rebound the basketball."
Williams has produced numbers video game-like numbers throughout the season. She leads the nation in scoring with a 25.8 average and ranks second in the nation in rebounding (18.1 per game) and blocked shots (4.0 per game). Six times she has scored 30 or more points, including 45 in a loss at Guilford. She also has 10 games of 20-plus rebounds. In her only meeting this season against the Eagles, Williams finished with 27 points and 20 boards in a 98-79 victory.
"Kelly is an extraordinary talent," Mathews said. "There's no way we can simulate in practice what she can do in a game. But, it's not just her. You focus all your attention on her and someone like Charlotte Woods can get 20 (points) and 11 (rebounds) like she did against us. Like I said, they're a tough matchup."
The first time the teams met, the Yellow Jackets took control early, jumping out to a 34-12 lead after one quarter.
"After that game, we talked to the team about focusing on playing defense in the first quarter," Mathews said. "Since that game we've done a really good job of doing that."
The Eagles are led by guard Briana Moore who is averaging 16.4 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. The junior has turned her game up a notch against conference teams as her numbers jump to 17.8 points and 6.8 rebounds per outing. And, she's been at her best down the stretch, averaging 18.8 points and 8.7 rebounds in her seven most recent games. That includes a 23-point, six rebound effort in the tournament opener against Roanoke.
Moore gets plenty of support from junior forward Rebecca Harvey and first-year point guard Madison Baum. Harvey scored 21 points in the ODAC opener. Baum dished out 10 assists and committed just one turnover while playing just 18 minutes against Roanoke. Harvey averages 12.5 points per game while Baum leads the ODAC in assists with 5.8 per contest. Baum and Gallaudet freshman Emelia Beldon are tied for the Division III lead for most assists by a freshman as both have 144 assists in 25 games.
Mathews is confident her players will be ready to play Thursday.
"I know they're excited to be playing in the Civic Center and I think they'll play loose," Mathews said. "We're going to focus on our team and hopefully we'll go out and build on what we did against Roanoke."