Disciples of disciplined defense

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Emily Sheehan defends Christopher Newport's Kiana Kirkland early in the teams' Sweet 16 game at Scranton.
Emily Feehan and the Scranton Lady Royals pride themselves on defense, and eight minutes of flawless D led the program back to the Final Four for the first time in more than a decade.
Photo by Thomas Nettleton, d3photography.com

By Nathan Ford

Bridgette Mann looked at the John Long Center scoreboard Saturday and saw her goal slipping away.

Tufts 40, Scranton 29. 8:04 to go.

“I think everyone kind of realized that the season was on the line,” Mann said.

It was the 100th NCAA Tournament game in Scranton women’s basketball history, and beginning to look like the last of Mann’s career.

She was a double-digit scorer on three previous Sweet 16 teams, the first of which that also reached the Elite Eight. But the program’s ninth Final Four trip had so far eluded her and coach Troy Woodruff, who also arrived at Scranton in 2015. Tufts ended two of those NCAA runs.

Bridgette Mann missed 10 games with injury this season, but is all set to go. 
Photo by Thomas Nettleton, d3photography.com

So down 11 with 8:04 remaining and a career-highlighting Final Four berth on the line, the Royals leaned on what they always do: disciplined defense.

“There was just something in everyone’s eyes that kind of turned on,” Mann said.

Eight minutes later, the Jumbos still had 40 points. The Royals had 44, and a spot in Salem.

It was obvious to all involved the defensive effort that was put forth, but it took someone in the postgame news conference actually spelling out the specifics for it to register.

“My jaw kind of dropped,” Mann said. “I was like, ‘are you kidding?’ To think about it, eight minutes, that’s a lot of basketball. I think we all kind of couldn’t believe that.”

And now they get at least 40 more minutes of basketball, with No. 1 Thomas More up next in a national semifinal at 7:30 p.m. Friday.

No one is expecting anything close to an eight-minute scoring drought for Thomas More, but Scranton still believes in its defense, led by Landmark Conference defensive player of the year Emily Sheehan.

The Royals spend the first half of every practice exclusively on the defensive end, and it shows in the numbers. They rank No. 7 in the country in field goal percentage defense (30.7) and No. 6 in scoring defense (48.2).

“Defense is what we focus on and we know it’s what we can control in the game the most when shots aren’t falling,” junior guard Makenzie Mason said. “It’s something that we definitely focus on throughout the entire season.”

Mason’s constant improvement is another reason the Royals are here.

After averaging 7.2 minutes a game her freshman year, she broke out last season with 9.7 points a night, then became the Mid-Atlantic Region Player of the Year in 2018-19 with 13.9 points and 7.6 rebounds. She shoots 37.7 percent from 3-point range and dishes 3.2 assists a game as well.

Mason’s emergence was even more critical this winter when Mann, last year’s Mid-Atlantic Region Player of the Year after averaging 15.3 points, missed 10 games with an injury.

“Just how far she’s come in three years has been unreal,” Mann said. “She’s shown so much basketball knowledge. She knows where everyone’s gonna be. She anticipates plays. She helps us out on defense a tremendous amount. I’m so happy for her. I’m proud of her. She resembles a perfect teammate to me.”

Mann started the first 96 games of her career before missing the Dec. 1 game against Goucher. The perspective from the sideline was a new one.

“It was frustrating,” Mann said. “Being a senior, you can’t help but think you don’t get those games back. From that aspect, it was very hard.

“But at the same time, I learned a lot about myself. I learned how to be more patient with myself and not be so hard on myself with little plays because from here on out you can’t take another moment for granted. I just learned more about being a leader and trying to help my teammates as best as I can when I’m not on the floor vs. when I am on the floor.”

While she was out, Scranton focused even more on defense and rebounding, or as Mason puts it, “what we can control.”

“I think our defense is a little better,” Woodruff said. “We’ve always been pretty good. I think our defense has been more consistent this year.”

The most points Scranton has allowed this season came without Mann in a 64-56 loss to Elizabethtown. That’s the only team to surpass 60. Twenty teams failed to crack 50.

“They’re willing to work, they’re disciplined in their rotations and they’re willing to do the hard things,” Woodruff said. “Box out, dive on loose balls. Our communication has gotten better as the season has gone on.”

That eight-minute stretch, in which Tufts missed all 11 shots it attempted, displayed all of the above. It was highlight film of what team defense looks like.

That depth eventually came into play on offense. Five players scored during the game-ending 15-0 run. Mason’s 3-pointer with 2:48 remaining made it a two-point game, Sofia Recupero’s layup tied it, and Mann hit the go-ahead free throws with 1:14 left.

“We knew it wasn’t going to come down to one person leading the team in the fourth quarter,” Mason said. “We moved the ball well, we held them up on the defensive end and we hit the shots that counted.”

In a 57-48 Elite Eight loss to Tufts in 2016, Mann’s freshman year, Scranton was outscored in the first quarter … 15-5. The Royals went through a scoring drought of 7:22. They rallied to tie it in the fourth, but the Jumbos hit the shots that counted, scoring 12 of the last 15 points.

Scranton had been chasing another Final Four appearance ever since. But when the buzzer sounded Saturday, “relief” wasn’t how Woodruff described the collective feeling like he might in other close wins throughout the season.

Instead, it was “joy.”

“This is one of the reasons why you come to Scranton,” Mann said. “To be able to say that we finally made it to a Final Four, it kind of puts everything in perspective. You’re one of those people, you’re in line with a bunch of those legends at Scranton now. It’s a pretty cool feeling.”