March 16, 2021 

Four takeaways from the Atlantic 10 Tournament

VCU makes history, returns to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009

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VCU celebrates with the trophy. Photo Courtesy of VCU Athletics.

With five overtime games and upsets galore the 2021 Atlantic 10 Women’s Basketball Tournament was one to remember. 

Here are four takeaways from the historic tournament: 

VCU made history 

The team’s 81-69 victory over Massachusetts secured VCU’s first A-10 Championship and punched the Rams’ ticket to its first NCAA Tournament since 2009. 

This was VCU’s third trip in a row to the conference championship game and first win, after losing to Fordham and Dayton in 2019 and 2020, respectively. 

“I’ve been in these press conferences handling the hardest defeat. It’s so hard to get to championship games and to stay at the top, that’s when you’re hunted and then we started off the year this way you know we struggled, we lost games we came out of the nonconference, probably not where we thought we would be, but again it was the response to it,” VCU head coach Beth O’Boyle said. 

VCU started the season 2-5 before going 10-5 in conference play. The Rams finished the regular season with a loss but created their own momentum in the conference tournament. 

“We talked [last night] about what does it mean to get to a championship. And you know, Taya [Robinson] talked about that freshman year being, seven wins Tera [Reed] talked about being away from her family. We’ve had so many players that have had their parents or their moms have COVID. We’ve dealt with so many things. And it’s not just about us getting through it. It’s the way that they handled it all,” O’Boyle said. 

VCU’s seniors — Taya Robinson, Olga Petrova, Sofya Pashigoreva, Sydnei Archie and Tera Reed — were a part of the team’s seven-win season as freshmen and the team’s two championship losses. 

“We kept our focus on playing our best basketball in March. I think that’s the main goal and we did that,” Reed said. 

The Rams excelled at both ends of the court, making 10 threes and accumulating 10 steals. 

“I think our message today was ‘Fight, fight for it, you know and do it together.’ And I think when we step on to that court again it’ll be that same mentality, hey, this is our next chance every game has been an opportunity for us to build, and let’s go after it.”

The Rams were seeded 13th by the selection and will take on 4 seed Indiana on March 22 at 2 p.m. ET.

Seven players were not enough for Massachusetts

Massachusetts traveled to the A-10 tournament with just seven players and played four games in four days, including a second-round overtime game against Saint Joseph’s. 

Sophomore Sam Breen played all 165 minutes of the team’s historic tournament run. “It hurts. It definitely stings. Just knowing we could’ve pulled this one out hurts the most.”

Head coach Tory Verdi was not surprised by Breen’s toughness, saying, “When I recruited Sam, we talked about this moment, we talked about [how] anything is possible, and that we’re going to move mountains together. To be honest, that’s starting to happen.”

The Minutewomen started the season 10-2, the program’s best start since the 1976-1977 season, before losing three straight games. 

Massachusetts then had its next five games either postponed (because of a positive COVID-19 test in the George Washington program) or canceled (due to the University pausing all athletic activities). 

The team’s unexpected run in the conference tournament led the team to its first A-10 championship game since 1998, before many of the players were born. 

The Minutewomen had six players dressed, but Stefanie Kulesza played a total of 20 minutes in the team’s four games. Over the course of the tournament, the other six players took turns stepping up. Against VCU Angelique Ngalakulondi, who averaged 1.9 points per game heading into the matchup, stepped up and posted a career-high 19 points. 

Massachusetts’ season will continue in the WNIT against Villanova on March 19 at 8 p.m. ET. This is the team’s first postseason appearance since 1998. 

Rhode Island had talent but lacked experience playing together 

Rhode Island fell to VCU 64-57 in overtime in its first A-10 quarterfinals appearance in 18 years. The Rams outscored VCU 15-5 in the last eight minutes of regulation to force overtime but were only able to score three points in overtime. 

The team made its historic run to the four-seed with an improbable turnaround, starting the season 0-4 and going 11-4 in 2021.

“This year, we built our momentum with a lot of talent that came in. And so, again, I couldn’t be any prouder of the kids that came in together during the pandemic, without any preseason. Really without, without any practice, and we started playing games and gradually they built that chemistry. And probably after Christmas, I realized how good we could be once we really were able to practice and build that chemistry and ever since then the kids just bought in, and that’s my hat’s off to that. They really, really bought into our culture and the belief that why not us? Why can’t we be successful at Rhode Island?” head coach Tammi Reiss said. 

She added, “We’re right where we need to be, maybe a little ahead of schedule, but I’m glad about that. But the process is emotion, and eventually, the goal is to become a champion. So I think we needed this experience playing a very senior-laden VCU team at their home court in the quarterfinals. I think that’s good for us, I think we needed to battle, really test ourselves and we can build on this. The kids that are crying in the locker room. They’ll definitely use that as motivation in this offseason to get better and to become a champion, that’s what you have to do, sometimes you have that failure to really experience what it’s going to be like to be a champion and so I think this hit home for that. I think they’re going to grow from it.”

The Rams are set to return most of their team and will have a full offseason to continue to grow as a team and work towards their goal of winning the A-10 championship. 

Dayton disappointed

For the second time in four years, the Flyers were knocked out by a five-seed as a one-seed. Dayton has held a number one seed four times in the last five years and has won the title just twice (2017 and 2020). 

“We talk all the time about our three battles: battles of the boards battle of the paint and battle of the ball. And we lost all three, this is the first game we’ve lost all three,” head coach Shauna Green said after the team’s 56-50 semifinals loss to VCU. 

The Rams outrebounded the Flyers 37-36 and outscored them 26-22 in the paint. Dayton turned the ball over 15 times and VCU turned the turnover into 15 points. The Flyers were able to score just seven points off of the Rams’ 11 turnovers. 

Prior to the start of the season, Green set two goals for her team, win the regular-season championship and win the tournament championship. 

“Our second one we fell short, but I love this group, so proud of them. This is a special group to me, the seniors, they’re just special. We’re going to miss them … It’s just a group that I really really love and I really care about, and really proud of,” Green said. 

After Saturday’s game, Green said  the postseason was the last thing the team was thinking about, saying, “We’ll get home, see what happens on [Selection] Monday, and kind of take it from there one day at a time.”

Dayton’s season will continue in the WNIT against Northern Iowa on March 19 at 12 p.m. ET.

Written by Natalie Heavren

Natalie Heavren has been a contributor to The Next since February 2019 and currently writes about the Atlantic 10 conference, the WNBA and the WBL.

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