UPDATED: Saturday, 11:04 p.m.
HARRISONBURG, Va. — Shay Burnett was jumping up and down to pump up the Elon University crowd, Essence Baucom was covering her face in her shirt and Lenaira Ruffin was tackling Baucom to the ground, the start of the dogpile that was a prelude to a celebration.
The Elon women’s basketball team is going to the NCAA Tournament.
The Phoenix sped past James Madison University with ease Saturday night, toppling the Dukes 78-60 to claim the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament championship at the JMU Convocation Center, the first conference championship for Elon in 18 years as a Division I program.
It brings what’s already been a historic season for the Phoenix to a climax. Elon set program records for conference wins and overall wins, then won the regular-season conference title for the first time in the Division I era and first time in 35 years.
James Madison rallied, but Elon had an answer every single time, dethroning the three-time reigning CAA Tournament champion on its home court.
Afterward, coach Charlotte Smith, net around her neck, was making a snow angel in the confetti, then scooping up as much as she could get. She was taking pictures with anybody and everybody, frantically asking around for someone with a camera while snapping selfies and hugging everyone in sight.
“It’s truly indescribable,” senior guard Lauren Brown said.
“I’m hardly ever at a loss for words, but I’m still pinching myself because it has not quite sunk in yet,” Smith said. “I’m so extremely proud of this team.”
Elon secures the CAA’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, and will learn of its match-up at 7 p.m. Monday night. A celebration is planned for the Elon community at Alumni Gym.
The result wasn’t dramatic, but the fashion and form perhaps were. There was no last-second shot or nail-biting moment, but rather a colossal takedown of the CAA’s top dog.
The Phoenix had lost all seven previous meetings between the two teams. Since the CAA moved the tournament back to a predetermined campus site this year, Elon, despite being the No. 1 seed, was essentially playing a road game against the second-seeded Dukes and two-time CAA Player of the Year Precious Hall.
None of that mattered. Elon calmly weathered the storm, with Baucom hounding Hall all night and the Dukes not providing much of a supporting effort.
Hall scored 32 points, but was just 10 of 33 from the field. The next highest scorer had five points.
Elon held James Madison to a dismal 22.8 percent clip from the field, the best defensive performance by the Phoenix this year.
“The fact that our defense put us where we are is overwhelming,” junior forward Malaya Johnson said. “It’s something we work so much on, something we preach and something we take pride in.”
Brown, named Most Outstanding Player of the tournament, scored a team-high 17 points, while Baucom had 16 and Johnson and Burnett each added 14.
The Phoenix took its largest lead at 60-38 midway through the fourth quarter after Johnson scored underneath on back-to-back possessions.
James Madison answered with a quick 12-3 burst, but misses and Elon’s free throw shooting were enough to push the Phoenix over the edge.
Soon enough, Elon was hoisting the Tom Yeager Trophy at midcourt and cutting down the nets.
In a season that’s brought so many accomplishments and moments of success, there’s now a new chapter.
Elon has earned its shining moment.
“It still hasn’t hit me, hit me,” senior forward Jenifer Rhodes said. “I’m excited we won. To be with an amazing group of girls that you just love so much, I just want the best for my teammates. The fact that we have just made history for Elon — not even just winning the championship game, but to have been named by other people at Elon the best women’s basketball team that Elon’s ever had.
“To have that name, with these girls, is the best feeling out there, honestly.”