By Chris McManes
In NCAA Division III basketball, teams play 25 regular-season games. Winning 20 is quite an accomplishment.
The Catholic University women's basketball team did just that. And with their 77-65 win over Elizabethtown in the Landmark Conference playoffs Wednesday, the second-seeded Cardinals stand 21-5.
The Cardinals will play for the league championship Saturday at top-seeded Scranton (23-3) with an NCAA bid on the line. Game time is 3 p.m. The teams split in the regular season.
The Cards, ranked eighth in the Mid-Atlantic region, have relied on a blend of youth and experience. The freshmen, because of their talent and injuries to upperclassmen, have stepped into key roles.
"Our feeling was if things broke right with some of the freshmen coming in, impacting us in a good fashion, we could be really good," head coach Matt Donohue said.
Sophomore wing Amanda Johnson said the newcomers' hard work since preseason has pushed the returnees.
"We realized that we have to fight [for playing time] not only against each other, but against them," Johnson said. "So, overall I think they've made themselves better and made us work a lot harder because of the effort they put in every day."
Competitive practices have contributed to the team's success.
"At every practice, people are fighting for their position and challenging each other," 6-foot senior forward Sydney Poindexter said. "Everyone knows their role and how to make each other better. We accept switching the lineups here and there for whoever's performing the best."
The results have been very good. The Cardinals have defeated two nationally ranked teams and won a pair of tournament championships. In his 12 years as Catholic head coach, this is Donohue's fifth 20-win season.
"I think this is the most dedicated and hard-working team I've been a part of in my four years here," Poindexter said. "Everyone's just completely bought in to our goal and what our mission has been. The freshmen came in ready and, to the leaders on this team, that has been super surprising. It's a huge reason why we're doing so well."
Injuries have forced a continual juggling of the rotation. The Cards began the year with just two healthy seniors: Poindexter and Megan Stafford. Fellow senior and two-year starting point guard Mollie Reynolds was out the entire first semester.
"That really put the talent and depth of the freshmen class to the test immediately," Donohue said.
Stafford was also felled by an early season injury and missed six games. Junior guard Cristin George, a top reserve last season, has not played at all.
Luca Mamula, a 5-foot-11 sophomore forward and second-team All-Landmark performer last year, has been out since Dec. 14. She was averaging 12.2 points and 4.2 rebounds.
"It's been one thing after another with injuries, and these young women have found a way to really stay together, to change roles, to adapt," Donohue said. "It's been a constant process of almost reinventing ourselves on the fly."
Amid the uncertainty has been the steady play of the only three women to start all 26 games: Poindexter, Johnson and Baldo.
Poindexter, a strong inside presence, paces Catholic in scoring (14.8 points per game) and rebounding (8 rpg). She has eight double-doubles this season, including a game-high 22 points and 11 boards in Wednesday's victory over E-town. She's making more than half of her shots (50.6 percent) and began the week third in the league in steals (1.8 spg).
"Sydney has grown in every way, shape and form," Donohue said. "She's worked tirelessly on her game. She has absolutely blossomed into a dual threat – offensively and defensively. … She increased her scoring with Luca out. She's been tremendous."
Johnson is second in points (10.6) and rebounds (5.3) and entered the week second in the Landmark in steals (2.5 spg). She was terrific in Wednesday's semifinal victory, finishing with 11 points, nine rebounds, five assists and five steals. Most of her output came in the second half and helped her team rally from a four-point deficit.
"I can't say enough great things about Amanda," Donohue said. "She fills up the stat sheet. She scores the ball and is making 3-pointers at a 35 percent clip, which is fantastic. She's lifted her rebounding total since Luca went out. If she's not the best defender in the league, she's one of the best. And she is without a doubt one of the best players in the league."
"The presence that both Sydney and Amanda have brought to the court this year from an offensive and defensive perspective has been just phenomenal. They've led the charge."
Baldo, the starting point guard, makes everything go with her on-ball perimeter defense, speed and unselfishness. She's averaging 4.7 points, 2.7 boards and 2.7 assists. Her 13 points Wednesday was one off her season high.
"She was thrust into the spotlight more quickly when Mollie went out with her injury," Donohue said. "She's done a terrific job running the point for us. She's sacrificed some scoring to get other people involved.
"She's a phenomenal defender, as well."
Donohue praises his team leaders for guiding the younger players: "I just can't say enough great things about Sydney and Amanda's leadership on the court this year. And Megan and Mollie have led despite what has been a really adverse season physically with all the injuries they've dealt with."
Cards Get Off to Flying Start
The Cardinals began the season 7-0 and won their two tournaments by defeating the host schools in the championship game. Playing at Muhlenberg in Allentown, Pa., they rallied from five points down in the fourth quarter to win 61-52.
"Seeing the way we clawed our way through that entire game and didn't quit was an early indicator that we could be a really good team," said Poindexter, who was named tournament MVP.
Three days later (Nov. 26), Catholic earned another big win, 72-65, at Haverford. The Fords (21-4) are regular-season Centennial Conference champions. They stand fourth in the nation in scoring defense, allowing 45.9 points per contest. The Cardinals' point total was the most they allowed all season.
"That game showed what we can be," Donohue said.
The first bump in the road occurred Dec. 3 on Franny Murray Court when the Cards were thrashed by Salisbury, 74-39, in their first game after Thanksgiving break. They responded with 23-point wins over Drew and Gallaudet.
"The win against Marymount, the No. 1 team in the Atlantic region and top team in the Atlantic East Conference, was a great victory," Donohue said. "And then the win against Scranton definitely showed that we have the potential and the ability to really compete at a high level."
Donohue has led the Cardinals to three Landmark championships and four NCAA Tournament appearances. They face a tough task in Scranton on Saturday afternoon. His team lost on the Royals' homecourt Feb. 8, 65-52.
"It's been great season so far," he said. "Hopefully we can keep it going."
Chris McManes (mick-maynz) was sports information director at Catholic University from 1998 to 2001.