The Elon University women’s basketball team clinched its first conference championship in its Division I era by routing the University of North Carolina at Wilmington (UNCW) 82-48 Wednesday night in Alumni Gym.
With the win, Elon earned the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) regular season title, finishing conference play with a 16-2 record. It's the first conference crown in the 18 years Elon's been in Division I and the first of any kind in 35 years, leading Elon to cut down a net after the game. The championship feeling still hadn't sunk in for head coach Charlotte Smith after going up the ladder last and wearing the net around her neck.
Charlotte Smith cuts the last of the net down here in Alumni Gym. pic.twitter.com/EV4VTZRzM2
— Tommy Hamzik (@T_Hamzik) March 2, 2017
"It still hasn’t hit me yet," Smith said. "The last couple of days, I kept pinching myself that we are even in a position to be regular season champs. We knew we had the potential and the ability to be here. I think I might have to sleep on it and then wake up and be like, 'Oh my gosh, we're champs.'"
Senior forward Jenifer Rhodes and senior guard Lauren Brown scored the bulk of Elon’s points in what may end up having been their last career game at Alumni Gym, with Brown dropping 25 points and Rhodes matching her career-high with 21.
"Jenifer was really able to go to work tonight," Brown said. "And luckily, I was able to attack. Coach Smith’s been talking to me about playing more aggressive, so I was trying to play with an aggressive mindset.”
Rhodes believed that Elon's depth of weapons was on display on the night, especially considering that the team's leading scorer, junior guard Shay Burnett, had just two points on the night.
“You don’t know who can go off,” Rhodes said. “If you’re face-guarding LB [Lauren Brown], Shay is gonna be open. If you’re denying me and [junior center] Malaya [Johnson] in the post, we have guards that can shoot the ball. Honestly, it’s too many threats on the floor at one time — you can’t stop us, and when we play together we are definitely unstoppable.”
While the game remained relatively close throughout the first half, Elon dominated in the second half, holding the Seahawks to just 7-of-31 shooting and outscoring UNCW 44-2. The 34-point final margin is the largest conference win Elon has had since joining the CAA.
1,234 packed Alumni Gym on the night, the second-largest home crowd in program history. With free t-shirts and pizza leading to a raucous student section, Brown felt that the team stepped up thanks to the constant encouragement on the night.
“We had an amazing crowd tonight,” Brown said. “I feel like we were really able to play off that energy. It’s great to go out with a win, have this support, and I’m really looking up as far as the conference tournament."
While the conference championship is the first in Smith's head-coaching career, it's not the first she's ever experienced, having won a national championship at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. But Smith felt extremely proud of the way her team has developed during her tenure, focusing all attention on them.
“I feel more happy for the players than I do for myself,” Smith said. “I wanted them to feel that gratifying feeling of what it means to win a championship — I’m just super excited for them, it’s just amazing the hard work they’ve invested.”
This victory sees Elon finish the regular season with a 24-6 record overall. The Phoenix will kick off the CAA Tournament quarterfinals at noon next Thursday, March 8, facing the winner of Wednesday's matchup between eighth-seeded Towson University and ninth-seeded Hofstra University in Harrisonburg, Virginia.
— Alex Simon (@alexsimon99) March 2, 2017
Photo gallery: Ashley King. Video: Erik Webb.