The defensive gameplan coming into Saturday's Capital Athletic Conference championship contest called for York College trying to shut down Christopher Newport's 6-foot, 1-inch junior center Camry Green.
Spartans' coach Betsy Witman had said after Thursday's semifinal win she hoped to counter Green with 6-foot senior forward Kristen Haley, while also mixing in some zone defense to make it tough on the visiting Captains to get the ball inside.
Five minutes and 31 seconds into Saturday's game, however, Witman had to postpone her original plans when referees whistled Haley for second foul. Haley sat on the bench the rest of the half. She spent much of the second half there, too, after coming in briefly only to pick up a quick foul and head back to the bench.
In her absence, fellow seniors Aja Wallpher, Kelsey Murphy and Brittany Hicks stepped up the plate. As did starter Jess Selby and 6-foot-1 bench player Shea Wassel. Their efforts allowed York to hold a slim margin most of the afternoon as Green proved to be nearly unstoppable with a team-high 16 points.
Finally, with 9:12 remaining, Witman could put her plan into action by reinserting Haley and switching the defense from man-to-man to zone. Haley responded with back-to-back layups. A Green layup made it a three-point game with under eight minutes to play. From there, though, Haley made sure not to pick up her fifth foul while the Spartans held Green to two points the rest of the way. And York created some breathing room for the first time all day by going on a 14-2 run, capped off by a Murphy 3-pointer from the corner and a Selby jumper. York went on to win, 66-53, to capture the program's second conference title in four years.
"It feels awesome," Haley said. "We had it freshman year. We kind of lucked into making it to the championship that year. This year it was well-deserved. We worked our butts off all season to get here. So it feels great."
Arguably the top two teams in the conference all season long, York (25-2) and Christopher Newport (22-5) proved to be near equals again Saturday. The Spartans, ranked No. 12 in NCAA Division III by d3hoops.com, previously beat No. 20 Christopher Newport at home by eight points but lost on the road by three points in overtime in the two regular season matchups between the clubs.
The Captains had leading scorer Tia Perry back then. Perry injured her leg nearly three weeks ago against Mary Washington and has yet to return. It resulted in Christopher Newport losing two of its final four conference games, which helped York earn the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament and host Saturday's title game inside a packed Grumbacher Center. But Green has adequately filled Perry's shoes, just as she did against York. With Haley in foul trouble, Wassel (four points) and York Catholic grad Hicks (game-high 23 points and nine rebounds) did their best trying to contain Green.
"Green is just so physical," Witman said. "She's so strong. She's 6-1 and can leap. She's tough to keep off the boards. We were in man-to-man, it can be tough guarding her. About nine minutes to go we switched to zone and that seemed to do a nice job because their guards kept penetrating."
With York leading 25-22 at intermission, Green's back-to-back layups to open the second half gave the Captains the lead for the first time since the opening minute of the contest. But the All-American Hicks, who moved into the top-five on York's all-time scoring list Saturday, answered with a pair of free throws and a 3-pointer. The Spartans didn't again relinquish the lead.
Selby, who was held scoreless in York's last matchup against Christopher Newport, finished with 13 points. Haley tallied 11 points and eight rebounds in just 22 minutes of action. Murphy's only made jumper - a 3-pointer from the corner - of six attempts came with 4:07 to play and put York up by 13.
"Kelsey Murphy, that was the dagger," Witman said. "The 3-pointer in front of our bench. I don't know how much time was left but that was the dagger."
While the Spartans held Christopher Newport to 29.9 percent shooting from the floor (20-of-67), including 5-of-20 from 3-point land (25 percent), York was also aided by Christopher Newport's 8-of-20 shooting from the free-throw line (40 percent). The Spartans, on the other hand, made 22-of-30 attempts (73.3 percent) from the charity stripe as they improved to 15-0 at home this season.
SENIORS: This year's group of seniors - Haley, Hicks, Murphy and Wallpher - surprised everyone as freshman three years ago by winning the program's first-ever conference title. Witman, a Hanover grad, has now steered York to a pair of conference titles in 17 years at the helm. A three-time CAC Coach-of-the-Year, Witman is five victories away from career win No. 300. Saturday was also York's third time in four years competing for the conference title for the winningest group of seniors in program history.
"It's been a journey," Witman said. "It hasn't been easy. I'll be honest. It really hasn't. Each one of them has had their challenges, whether it's relatives battling cancer or academic problems or having medical problems or injuries. They've all been through something. They really have come out on the other side and have persevered. It's been really rewarding to me as a coach to see them accomplish what they've accomplished."
York now has five wins this season over teams who came in ranked in the Top 25.
ON TO THE BIG DANCE: After cutting down the net, the Spartans joined family members and friends in celebrating Saturday's win at Cobblestone's, the sports-themed restaurant and bar in downtown York. Players and coaches will return to practice Tuesday to begin preparing for Friday's opening round of the NCAA Division III tournament. It'll be the third time in four years York will be in the tournament, having reached the Sweet 16 in 2012.
"We have doubters and people coming into this year saying 'Their poor performance last year,' which really wasn't, they just doubted our ability this year," Hicks said, referring to York's upset loss a year ago in the conference semifinals that resulted in the Spartans missing the big dance. "I think our senior class and Jess (Selby), we showed them everything we can have. I'd hope for a national championship."
Reach John Walk at firstname.lastname@example.org.