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COLLEGE PARK, Md. — When senior guard Essence Baucom fouled out of the Elon University women’s basketball team’s first game in the NCAA Tournament in school history, head coach Charlotte Smith stopped her as she went to the bench.

With Baucom tearing up, Smith opened her arms and pulled her point guard and star defender in for a hug, an embrace that concluded Baucom’s time in an Elon uniform.

The 11th-seeded Phoenix lost 75-62 to sixth-seeded West Virginia University March 17 in College Park, Maryland, ending its best season in the Division I era in the first round of the Big Dance. The emotions of the season ending, as well as the game being the finale of the careers of Elon’s five seniors, had Smith tearing up a little in the postgame press conference.

“This game is a tough pill for all of us to swallow,” Smith said. “When you see a locker room full of tears, you know you have players who are passionate about the game and passionate about what they do. I couldn’t be more proud of this team and the way they came out and played.”

But in defeat, Elon showed exactly how far it had come throughout the season and showed just how good it was on a national stage, staying with the Big 12 Conference champions, as the Phoenix tied the game with seven and a half minutes left before the Mountaineers pulled away. 

“Obviously, if you look at film, there’s a lot of things we could’ve done differently to get a different result,” Baucom said. “But overall, I’m proud of my team, proud of the effort they gave, and proud to represent Elon.”

Smith praised her five seniors — Baucom, guard Lauren Brown, guard Maddie McCallie, forward Jenifer Rhodes and guard Lenaira Ruffin — for taking Elon from the Southern Conference to Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) and becoming champions.

“Initially, it was heartbreaking — I wanted it so much for the seniors and this team because they poured so much into this program the last four years,” Smith said. “I felt like this was a team that could definitely make a deep run into the tournament, and unfortunately, we’re having to go home. I can’t be more proud of this senior class and everything that they’ve done. This is one of the most selfless classes that I’ve ever coached.”

As Elon says goodbye to those five, there’s reason to believe that next season could be a repeat. The Phoenix returns two-time All-CAA First Team guard Shay Burnett and forward Malaya Johnson, who are expected to lead the team as seniors. 

Burnett was the team’s leader in points (419), rebounds (247), steals (54) and assists (157, fifth-most by an Elon player in a single-season), while Johnson led the team in blocks (54, tied for sixth-most in a single season). They both played well against the Mountaineers too, with Burnett scoring a game-high 19 points and got 10 points and seven rebounds from Johnson, who felt pride over the team’s effort and record-breaking year.

“We had a great group of girls this year,” Johnson said. “I love every single one of my teammates, and I think it was just the feeling of knowing that we worked so hard for so long and we didn’t get as far as we wanted to. Like the coaches have said, we’ve done some amazing things this season and we have absolutely no reason to hang out our heads. We played hard, we fought and we all wanted it.”

Those amazing things include winning 27 games, the second-most in a single season in school history (only behind 1980-1981’s 29 wins). It was the first season in school history to have three players reach the 1,000-point mark, with Brown, Burnett and Rhodes all reaching it in a three-week span.

It was the best offensive season in the Division I era, with Elon setting records in points (2,399), points-per-game (70.6), field goals (885), field goal percentage (.427) and assists (453). Elon also grabbed the most rebounds (1,417), blocked the most shots (146) and had its best scoring margin (+11.6) since joining the top division in the NCAA.

With all of that, there’s no doubt that this was the best basketball team Elon has ever had, letting the seniors depart with their heads high and leaving an impact that could be felt for years to come.

“This is the way we wanted to go out,” Baucom said. “On top, becoming CAA champions and making our first appearance in the NCAA. But it’s definitely bittersweet, and I’m definitely going to miss Elon.”

Smith added, “A lot of times, when we go around, people are like, ‘Where’s that?’ We wanted to change that, and I feel like we brought Elon athletics out of obscurity and into destiny.

“Hopefully, people will know where Elon is now.”