“Rebounding wins championships,” FDU-Florham head coach Marc Mitchell paused and repeated, “Rebounding. Wins. Championships.”
Mitchell’s Devils are one win away from securing the Division III national championship, thanks in part to, rebounding.
After another slow start, FDU-Florham followed with another strong finish down the stretch to reach the championship game. The Devils held off Tufts 42-39 in the national semifinals on Friday night in Stevens Point, Wis. Scoring their fewest points of the season (they have only two games under 60) and by the smallest margin of victory (only one win by less than 10 points this year) the Devils relied on their defense to adjust to the low-scoring contest.
FDU-Florham has trailed or been tied in each of the past four games. Heading into Friday night, they had outscored the opposition 200-102 in the second half during the tournament. The Devils fell behind early again on Friday night, opening up shooting 1-of-17 from the field. They trailed by as much as six in the closing minutes of the first half, before rebounding to another second half victory.
“Just keep shooting,” mentioned Kyra Dayon who finished with a game-high 17 points, “but defense is what helps us win games. We knew that if we didn’t score, then they couldn’t score.”
Sophomore Shallette Brown pulled down another 18 boards, including eight on the offensive end giving her 67 for the tournament. In all, Florham had 19 offensive boards and 40 total rebounds.
“I just watch the ball, the rotation of the ball,” Brown said, “just find a body and go. In order for us to win we need the ball in our hands.”
In the final 30 seconds, with a 42-39 lead the Devils grabbed a pair of offensive rebounds off missed free throws extending possessions for Florham.
“Rebounding is something I talk about all the time,” Mitchell continued, “Rebounding, rebounding, rebounding. I’ve been talking to them all year about getting that one rebound. And these two [Kyra Dayon and Brown], particularly Shallette [Brown], you can’t say enough about Shallette.”
After Dayon missed the front end of a one-and-one, Brown pulled down a huge board to keep the ball in the Devils possession. The follow up had Brown missing the free throw and Dayon cleaning the glass this time.
“Can I talk about that?” Mitchell asked about his sophomore forward, “I can talk about it all day and all night. What a heart this young lady has. Tremendous athleticism, but it’s equaled by a fierce competitive nature.”
An undersized forward at 5-10, Brown’s athleticism creates headaches for opposing coaches as they struggle to box her out and keep her off the offensive glass and away from loose balls.
“She’s a beast. She’s a beast on the boards,” Tufts head coach Carla Berube said, “You can talk about it all you want. You have one job when defending her, you got to box her out and another thing is to actually stop somebody that tenacious. She is a difference maker and made enormous plays giving them second, third, and fourth chances.”
“Sometimes rebounding is about anticipating, about blocking out,” Mitchell said, “and sometimes you just got to go get it and she does it better than anyone.”
Averaging more than 80 points per game, hitting triple figures four times this year, the Devils were held to just 42 points in their latest of 32 consecutive victories. But it was the defense that came up big in the closing minutes of the national semifinal game, holding Tufts without a field goal for the final seven minutes. Possession after possession the Devils made essential stops while grabbing key rebounds.
“FDU did a very good job of just clamping down and not giving us good looks,” said Berube, “A lot of credit to FDU and how well they played on the defensive end.”
Senior Tufts guard Liz Moynihan added, “They play in- your-face defense, hands everywhere. It was difficult to see Haley [Kanner] and Michela [North].”
With nine ticks left on the clock, Tufts used its final timeout to try to set up a game-tying three in the final possession. But the Devils defense would not allow a good look as Tufts floated up a desperation three at the buzzer that fell short, propelling FDU-Florham just 40 minutes away from a national title.
“We got to be a first-half and second-half team,” said Brown, “We got to make those shots. We only have one more game and we got to give it all tomorrow.”