After the final sound of the buzzer March 2, the Elon University women’s basketball team earned one more home victory and walked off the court at Schar Center for the last time in the 2022-23 season. Five players, including graduate student guard Lenaejha Evans and graduate student center Evonna McGill, walked off the court for their final time in maroon and gold.
This season was Evans’ first and only with the Phoenix after playing for two seasons at Rider University. She said exiting Schar Center was bittersweet.
“Like coach said, she wished she had me for all four years and I wish the same thing,” Evans said. “I learned a lot here. It's a great atmosphere and I just love the people here.”
McGill transferred to Elon from University of North Carolina Asheville as a junior, and completed her third season as one of the Phoenix’s key contributors on the roster. In her career, she totaled 608 points and 272 rebounds. She exited in tears but said she is focused on the future.
“We've got more to do,” McGill said. “We've still got the tournament. I can live in this moment but I've still got to focus on what's next to come because we're not done.”
Head coach Charlotte Smith said she was proud of the team’s performance in its 52-42 victory against University of North Carolina Wilmington — not only for the seniors, but to boost morale for the entire team.
“It really is an emotional night because this is the final game in Schar Center for a lot of wonderful seniors, but what a better way to go out than with a W,” Smith said. “Hopefully this gives us some momentum going into the tournament.”
With the 2022-23 regular season officially under wraps, it's now time for the Phoenix to look toward one thing: the Colonial Athletic Association championship tournament.
The Phoenix, who finished the regular season with a 9-20 overall record and 5-13 conference record, will enter ranked No. 11 out of 13 seeds. The tournament will be held in Towson, Maryland, with Elon’s first round matchup March 9 at 7:30 p.m. against No. 6 seeded Stony Brook University. Smith said although the team has had its ups and downs, she believes that they can go far and make a strong push in the tournament.
“I see them going as far as I see every team that I've ever coached, all the way to the championship,” Smith said. “If you're not playing for the championship, then what are you playing for?”
Since Elon joined the CAA in 2014, Smith has had great success in the postseason. In the 2016-17 season, she led the Phoenix to not only the regular season title, but also the championship title — defeating No. 2 ranked James Madison University in the final round of the tournament. The following year, it won the championship once again, defeating No. 1 Drexel University as the No. 3 seed. In both years, the Phoenix lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
A decorated athlete and coach, Smith said she will draw from her past experience to help the team this season.
“We always talk about how you've got to win in your mind before you win in real life,” Smith said. “I'm always winning in my mind.”
This will be McGill’s third CAA tournament in her career. In 2021, she lost in the quarterfinals to No. 3 seeded Drexel University, where she led the team with 18 points. Similarly, the Phoenix lost in 2022 to No. 5 ranked College of Charleston, where McGill led the team with a double-double, scoring 19 points and 10 rebounds. She said she hopes to continue her large contributions in the postseason this year after having success down the stretch of the 2022-23 regular season.
“I've been seeing the trust that the coaches have put into me, I've been starting to see it flourish,” McGill said. “At first, I wasn't really seeing it, but out there I trust them and I trust the process.”
After a strong defensive outing against UNCW, McGill said that defense will continue to be emphasized in preparation for such a large game.
“Defense is what wins games,” McGill said. “Defensive boards, defensive stops, so we all just talked about it as a team to come out with energy, and if we don't do anything else, we need to get a stop.”
The experience that McGill, as well as Evans, bring to the table is going to be key among a roster of younger players. But, Smith said she is confident that the freshmen will bring a lot to the table.
“A lot of the younger players come from good stock,” Smith said. “They come from programs that have won, so they know how to win. We want to be clicking on all five cylinders. It's just a matter of everybody bringing their best talent to the game because when we do that, we're an unstoppable force.”
Freshman guard Raven Preston, CAA Rookie of the Year, has missed the past two games due to injury. The top average scorer, Smith said Preston has been a key contributor, but still has trust in the other members of the team to get the job done.
“I don't care who's on the roster, I'm always believing,” Smith said. “I told my players if you don't have confidence in yourself then you don't have anything. I have confidence in myself as a coach. I believe that I can win with anybody we have on the roster so I'm trying to always find a way to win, trying to find a way to constantly get that edge, and trying to find a way to get another banner.”
Smith said resting the team will be important down the stretch.
“The biggest thing for us in preparation for the tournament is to make sure that we’re well rested and then take care of business,” Smith said. “Resting, making sure we're healthy both mind, body and soul.”
Smith is focused on this goal and believes in her team.
“I believe in what this team brings to the table,” Smith said. “We know we're capable. It's just a matter of us playing Elon basketball for 40 minutes. Basketball is a game of mistakes, but we want to minimize those mistakes, and when we do that, we give ourselves a chance to be successful and we can play with the best of them. We've proven that.”