March 24, 2024 

‘I could not have been prouder’: Richmond’s historic season ends in the NCAA Tournament

The Spiders reflect on the journey as their season comes full circle

A lot has happened in the 138 days since Nov. 6, 2023, when the Richmond Spiders opened their season with an 83-53 loss to the Duke Blue Devils, including wins over NCAA Tournament participants Maine and Drake in the Vibrant Thanksgiving Classic, regular season and conference tournament A-10 titles — both program firsts — and plenty of memories along the way.

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Though on paper Richmond’s season may have started and ended the same way, with a loss to Duke, having fallen to the Blue Devils 72-61 in the First Round of the NCAA Tournament on March 22, the Spiders know how far they’ve come and how much they’ve grown.

“I don’t want that final score to indicate or let these guys think that there was anything other than a Herculean effort today,” Richmond head coach Aaron Roussell said during his opening statement. “We’ve come a long way. As much as we’ve forgotten about the first two games, let’s not forget these guys outscored us by 81 points combined in the two games that we played them before [on Dec. 4, 2022 and Nov. 6, 2023].”

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In the first quarter, both the Spiders and the Blue Devils shot above 60% from the floor, but strong 3-point shooting helped Richmond take a three-point lead into the second quarter. The team went 5-7 from behind the arc, led by senior forward Addie Budnik’s nine points on 3-4 shooting from three.

Then the Spiders’ defense stepped up in the second quarter, Richmond allowed just one field goal and five total points to head into halftime with a nine-point lead.

“I think we were able to do some things to get [Duke] maybe a little more uncomfortable in that first half,” Roussell said. “I thought we really kind of had them out of rhythm. Really, really proud of our kids in that first half. They made some adjustments. They started switching some things, played some different lineups, probably got into them a little bit because they were a load on the boards. I thought we maybe kind of got punched in the face a little bit starting the game with the transition defense and with the rebounding, but then after that, man, our kids were on another level. I could not have been prouder.” 

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The Spiders’ halftime lead evaporated in 2 minutes and 39 seconds with four baskets by four different Blue Devils. Duke took the lead for good less than three minutes later, just over halfway through the third quarter.

“We had far too many defensive breakdowns, and that led to the eight threes at the half,” Duke head coach Kara Lawson said during her opening statement. “… [T]here were other things we talked about cleaning up, but the main thing was the open three-point shots. I was proud of our group for making the adjustment, and in the second half to hold them to two threes, I thought that changed the game.” 

Though Richmond pulled within five early in the fourth quarter and that was the closest it would come for the rest of the game, Roussell couldn’t have been prouder of his team.

“We were up nine at the half,” Roussell said. “You don’t get trophies for that, but I think that shows a lot about the heart of this team. I’ve used the word ‘special’ a lot with this group over the last three weeks, and it’s because they earned it. This was an incredibly special group and [I’m] very honored to coach them.”

Budnik and senior guard Grace Townsend haven’t decided if they’ll use their extra year of eligibility that the NCAA granted during the COVID-19 pandemic but if this was the last game for the pair, they put up performances fans won’t soon forget. 

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Townsend led the team with 18 points, going 9-16 from the floor. She also added eight assists and two steals. Budnik added 17 points and went 5-8 from behind the arc. She also added one rebound, three assists and two blocks. Sophomore forward Maggie Doogan was the third player in double figures, contributing 15 points, seven rebounds, one assist and two steals. 

Budnik noted that the team’s resiliency was different from previous seasons. Instead of letting errors in a game or a loss impact future plays or games, she saw the team collectively grow to bounce back in the next play or next game. Roussell pointed to the season-opening loss to Duke and the team’s two conference losses to Duquesne and George Mason as games that forced the team to re-evaluate and look deeper at themselves. He has seen the improvement in his team over the course of the season, while also acknowledging some things looked the same as that opening game. 

“Personally I think that game forced me to be a better coach,” he said, referencing the team’s first loss to the Blue Devils this season. “I think we did some things in the offseason. I don’t think that first game was indicative of what we were at that point on Nov. 6. Maybe you can still say that some of those things in the second half today reared its head a little bit with some of the things we struggled with on the boards.

“Some of that, like I said, was you can sit here and talk about, ‘Hey, go box this kid out and go do this.’ They went and made some plays. Some of those were great defense that it’s an air ball, great defense, it’s a bad miss, and Jadyn Donovan is there. I can be upset she got the rebound, I can’t be upset with our kids for their effort on that.”

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Townsend and her teammates knew coming into the season that they had a special group, they just needed to be able to put the pieces together, having grown and matured together. “I think you can tell even [with] our chemistry on and off the court, it’s incredible,” she said. “I’m so grateful to be a part of this special group. Even though we ended on a loss today, we have to look back at all the good things we’ve done throughout the season and remember those ones too.”

The Spiders had won five in a row before falling to the Blue Devils and Roussell talked about the joy he’s had coaching the team as the regular season, and now the team’s postseason run, came to an end. And it’s safe to say that Richmond has enjoyed every moment of the first week of the NCAA Tournament.

“It’s an incredible experience just the little things like going in the locker room and seeing that they put soap in our locker really excited all of us,” Budnik said. “It’s such an amazing experience. Everybody has been amazing. To be here to have the opportunity to do this is something that we wouldn’t trade for the world, and it’s a once-in-a-lifetime memory and experience with a group of best friends that we’re never going to forget.”

Townsend added, “The soap was incredible. There was an uproar in the locker room when we walked in. We weren’t expecting that one. But, no, I mean, we’re blessed. This was an incredible opportunity. We’re so grateful that we fought our way here, and we were able to get here and compete in such an incredible environment. Although we only played one game, it was definitely an experience we’ll never forget, and we’re forever grateful for it.”

Roussell has been to the NCAA Tournament before, twice as the head coach of Bucknell and four times as the head coach of Division III University of Chicago, but he still basked in what he called “a special experience with a special group.”

“I think [I] held it together pretty good in the locker room, but the lip was quivering quite a bit here over the last few weeks just trying to think, one, that this was coming to an end at some point,” he said. “But I don’t know how I would have gone on … just ever thinking that this group didn’t get this experience. This meant the world to me. Probably through some of the things that they didn’t enjoy [me] taking them through. Some of the trials of what a season has, what a career has, but everything was about I wanted this group to experience the NCAA Tournament so badly. The fact that they got to do that means a lot. 

“… [A]s a coach you think about adjustments and line-ups that you maybe could have done. I’m sure at some point they [will] watch the film and think about a mistake that they made. But these guys were so great for so long, and that includes today. … When you can get to the end of the season and you can say somebody beat you instead of sitting back for years and saying we lost that game, we choked, we blew it. We went out and forced them to win that game, and they did it. Unfortunately, we don’t get that feeling of celebration for today, but I’m very grateful that these guys get memories for the rest of their lives from these last few weeks.”

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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