Jefferson women top CHC in conference championship game

by Tom Utescher
Posted 3/13/24

In the Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference, the 2024 women's basketball championship came down to two teams from Northwest Philadelphia.

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Jefferson women top CHC in conference championship game


In the Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference, an NCAA Division II league spanning four states, the 2024 women's basketball championship came down to two teams from Northwest Philadelphia.

Jefferson University, a 29-1 team ranked as high as third in national polls, would take on a relative upstart in Chestnut Hill College, which came in at 20-8 overall after finishing 12-4 in the CACC regular season.

Jefferson, undefeated in conference play, led 13-9 after the first quarter and 31-23 at halftime. The Lady Rams the pulled away smartly with a 16-2 surge in the third quarter. They would go on to win Sunday's final, 61-39, clinching the program's fifth CACC title and securing the conference's automatic bid to the NCAA Division II tournament.

Chestnut Hill, which was ranked second in the CACC South, had lost to Jefferson twice during the regular season, once by just half-a-dozen points.

At the conference's "final four" site at Caldwell (N.J.) University, Saturday's semifinals saw Jefferson stave off a late charge by Holy Family University to prevail 65-57, while in the second game Chestnut Hill was in command the whole way against Goldey Beacom College. Goldey, coached by Chestnut Hill alum Bethann (Castone) Burke, fell 66-48.

Tom Shirley, winding down his 34th season as Jefferson head coach, noted after Sunday's victory, "This team has chemistry, they love each other, and they love to play. That's tough to beat."

On the CHC side, Reggie Daniels is in his first season as the Griffins' mentor.

"No team at Chestnut Hill has made it this far in the tournament," he observed, "so I think we accomplished a lot in the first year and the sky's the limit for us."

Asked when things began to "click" between himself and his new team, Daniels pointed to a December 30 exhibition game against Division I Binghamton University, where he'd been an assistant coach immediately prior to his hiring at CHC.

"It was kind of like we flipped a switch," he recalled. "We started playing much better basketball and we went on an 11-game win streak."

Jefferson's Lady Rams, a cadre of veterans, had gone through a lot together, including a one-point overtime loss in last year's CACC semifinals.

That had a good deal to do with this year's success.

A key factor, Coach Shirley noted, was "It's a team that's started the same four kids for three years."

He was referring to two seniors, points guard Morgan Robinson and forward Haley Meinel, and two juniors, forward/center Cassie Murphy and guard/forward Sam Yencha. This season, Yencha was named CACC Player of the Year, and Meinel was Defensive Player of the Year.

Chestnut Hill's roster included the conference Rookie of the Year in guard Bridie McCann. She came to the team from Sienna University, where she played in two games in 2022-23 before stepping aside and maintaining her freshman-year eligibility.

In last weekend's CACC championship game, Robinson scored the first points for Jefferson and Chestnut Hill freshman Caleigh Edwards answered with a short jumper. A steal by CHC senior guard (and Penn Charter grad) Kait Carter led to a transition lay-up by sophomore point guard Avery White. The resulting 4-2 edge for the Griffins would be their only lead of the ballgame.

Lay-ups by Robinson and Yencha and a three-pointer by junior Emma Kuczynski moved the Lady Rams ahead, 9-4, and later they would lead 13-6 before CHC freshman Caraline Herb bagged a "three" for a 13-9 tally at the quarter.

In the second round Jefferson continued to separate, and about a minute-and-a-half into the period the Lady Rams widened the gap to 10 points with a three-point bucket by senior Emily Keehfuss, a former Mount St. Joseph rival out of Nazareth Academy.

A pair of jumpers by McCann helped revive the Chestnut Hill offense, and late in the period a free throw by Carter got the Griffins back within four points, 27-23. In the last minute, though, scores from the paint by Murphy and freshman guard Emily Spratt gave Jefferson an eight-point cushion at the intermission, 31-23.

As the second half got underway, Herb cut the Chestnut Hill deficit to five points by nailing a three-pointer from the left side. Then things went south for the Griffins. Meinel hit a midrange jumper and Kuczynski scored back-to-back field goals, touching off a 16-2 spree for the Lady Rams that stretched into the final minutes of the third period.

Against Goldey Beacom, Chestnut Hill hadn't shot the "three" well, but the Griffins were productive when they got the ball inside. Now, three-point production was curtailed by Jefferson, and the Griffins' shorter shots weren't dropping either.

"We play this switching man-to-man," Shirley explained, "so we were jumping on everybody coming off screens and we neutralized that. It seemed like they were searching for shots."

The Griffins' defense switched around between zone and man-to-man, but often this was a moot point as the Lady Rams simply scored in transition.

Down by 17 points at the three-quarter mark (47-30), Chestnut Hill never got closer than 16 in the fourth frame.

"Sometimes the ball just doesn't bounce your way," Daniels philosophized, "and we'll learn from it."

Murphy, Robinson, and Yencha each supplied 12 points to the winners, while Kuczynski added 11 and Keehfuss scored eight. Yencha hauled in a game-high 16 rebounds, and Robinson and Meinel each logged five assists.

Chestnut Hill was paced by Herb, with 10 points, McCann, with nine, and Edwards, with eight. The good news for the Griffins is that all three are freshmen. McCann led the CHC rebounders with seven boards.

In addition to McCann, the Griffins have another talented transfer in guard Siobhan Boylan. She played for Chestnut Hill last year as a sophomore after spending her freshman year at Division I Marist University, then she redshirted due to injury this season.

Jefferson's Shirley has a very different approach when it comes to acquiring talent. He routinely redshirts true freshmen, and many of them enter five-year academic programs that allow them to leave with a master's degree. The redshirt year lets players mature physically, and become familiar with the Lady Rams' system.

As the veteran coach says, "It's an anti-portal position on my part. I'm going to bring in the babies, and I'm going to raise them."