Erin Edwards, Navy go out fighting
COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Erin Edwards will be a pilot.
After she graduates from Navy in the spring, she'll head to Florida for training.
But on Saturday afternoon, Edwards wasn't thinking about what comes next.
She was thinking about what's come before. She was standing on Maryland's Gary Williams court, absorbing the final seconds of her college basketball career.
She was thinking about her teammates. She wanted to make sure -- even before the final buzzer sounded -- that they knew how important they were. And how much she'd miss playing with them.
On that final possession, Edwards had time to think about something other than playing defense because Maryland was holding the ball, allowing the remaining seconds to drain. Navy, the No. 15 seed, had done everything it could. The Midshipmen had been tied early, 17-17, and went to halftime with a fighting chance.
They dove for loose balls, leaned into the bigger Terps, and tried desperately to keep pace with the ACC champs.
But they couldn't. So Edward's teammates slowly walked over to Navy's only senior, nodding their heads, wrapping her in hugs, and waiting for the horn.
"I was just standing there thinking how much these four years have meant to me," Edwards said, "and how much I loved every minute of it."
Maryland, the No. 2 seed, defeated Navy in its opening-round women's NCAA tournament game 59-44, gradually pulling away as the second half wore on.
Navy was out-everythinged by Maryland. But the Midshipmen kept hustling.
They managed to make five first-half 3-pointers and when Chloe Stapleton drained Navy's sixth (and final) trey early in the second half, Maryland's lead was only 37-30. It was around that time Terps coach Brenda Frese began running one particular play -- again and again. She ran it for Maryland's best player, ACC Player of the Year Alyssa Thomas, who had scored only five points in the first half.
In the second, Thomas went 5-for-7 from the floor with 12 points. On a half-dozen second-half possessions, Maryland point guard Anjale Barrett delivered a bounce pass to the elbow. Thomas, who was starting away from the ball near the baseline, would curl around to the elbow for a handoff. Twice, she just kept going, like a runaway train, finishing with a layup at the rim. Another time she caught and pulled up in the lane for a floater.
Navy was overwhelmed by plays like these, ones that depended on athleticism and size and finishing near the hoop. The Terps outrebounded Navy, 46-33, and shot well enough from beyond the arc (4-for-10 for the game) that the Midshipmen couldn't switch to a zone.
Navy shot 1-for-12 from 3 in the second half. Without the luxury of the occasional dagger from long range, Navy coach Stefanie Pemper went to her bag of tricks.
"If you were sitting near the scorer's table, you probably thought we had a play for every state in the union," Pemper joked afterward, referring to one play called "Wisconsin" her team ran midway through the second. "We ran 27 different plays today."
Pemper was looking for a crack in Maryland's defense, which included a frontline of 6-foot-4 center Alicia DeVaughn and 6-3 forward Tianna Hawkins. Cracks didn't exist.
As everyone predicted, the Terps will keep playing. On Monday night on its home floor, Maryland will play No. 7-seeded Louisville (ESPN2, TBD) for a chance to advance to the Sweet 16. When the Terps jogged off the court on Saturday, they did so to hear quickly from Frese, and then headed back out to the court to watch as Louisville dominated No. 10 Michigan State, 67-55.
But when Navy ran off the court, it was for the final time this season -- or so they thought. The Midshipmen, all of them stonefaced, jogged through the tunnel and into the visiting locker room. They were trailed by Pemper, who allowed herself a few tears. When they reached the locker room, Edwards, thinking she was finally alone, put her head in her hands and stared at the floor, allowed her eyes to fill.
Right then, Navy's band started the alma mater, which no Midshipmen misses.
Pemper was still in the hallway. She looked surprised to see her team jog past her again, back toward the court, their eyes now dripping.
"That was hard," Edwards said. "First having to stand on the court knowing it was the last time. And then going back out there to listen to the alma mater, knowing it was the last time I'd do that, too."
Navy has played in back-to-back NCAA tournaments. Teams from the Patriot League have only twice finished within 20 points of an opponent during the NCAAs: Navy last season and Navy this season. Edwards feels confident she's leaving the program better than she found it.
"I look forward to seeing where they go, and I'll be envious the whole time," Edwards said.
Pemper took over the job when Edwards was a freshman. "She and I are the only two people who have been with the Navy women's basketball program the last four years," Pemper said. "She's the winningest kid that ever played for Navy women's basketball."
As Pemper and Edwards left the locker room to speak to the media, Edwards hugged teammate Jade Geif. Pemper, trailing behind, said, "Can I get one of those?"
Edwards turned and hugged her coach, then kept walking.
"But I don't want to go," Edwards whispered, not really to anyone in particular.
Pemper, Edwards and Geif kept walking, passing a trio of polished officers, one of them Steve Vahsen, Chief of Staff at the USNA.
And in that moment you were reminded that Edwards isn't a guard anymore, she's a pilot-in-training.
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