PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — The University of the Sciences women’s basketball team is getting ready for the Division II NCAA Tournament.
The Devils will play Bentley in the first-round on Friday in Garden City, New York. Sciences earned an automatic bid into this year’s tournament after winning the Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference Tournament. It will be the first tourney appearance for the Devils since 2006.
“It’s so incredibly exciting,” Sciences head coach Jackie Hartzell tells KYW Newsradio. “I’m just really, really happy for our players. They’ve worked really, really hard and they really deserve this.”
Listen to the entire interview with Sciences head coach Jackie Hartzell:
The 26-5 Devils set the tone for this season early, winning their first six games, including some against tough non-conference opponents like American International.
“I think we were a little bit surprised that we started as well as we did and did as well against the Northeast-10 teams early,” Hartzell says. “We kind of hit a wall in January, we really weren’t playing well at all. But at the end of January, we started to turn the corner and our goal was to be playing our best at the end of the season and we saved our two best games for the semifinals and the championship of the CACC. So I couldn’t be happier with that.”
The Devils beat Caldwell in the CACC title game on Sunday, 72-57. Junior guard Sarah Abbonizio, who earned CACC Tournament MVP honors, scored 14 points in the title win. She remembers the feeling as she came out of the game in the final minute with the outcome sewn up.
“I was just so overwhelmed with emotion I just started crying because it just meant so much to me,” Abbonizio tells KYW Newsradio. “We’ve worked so hard for this. Then when the buzzer went off, everyone got really excited and that’s when it really started to hit. And then when we got the banner and the trophy in our hands, that’s when we were just like, ‘We did it!’”
Listen to the entire interview with Sciences junior guard Sarah Abbonizio:
Abbonizio talks about what’s allowed her team to get to this point.
“I think the fact that we’re playing as a team and everyone’s contributing,” she says. “Everyone who is on the court is playing their role and whoever needs to score, scores, whoever needs to get stops and rebounds is getting stops and rebounds and just the fact that we’re all playing together is why we’ve been playing so well.”
Abbonizio is the second leading scorer on the team, averaging 13.3 ppg. Sophomore guard Alex Thomas leads the sqaud at 14.7 points a night. It can’t be stressed enough that the team is enjoying all this success without a senior on the roster.
What the Devils do best is defend. In fact, they are the toughest team to score against in the country in Division II, allowing just 52.4 points per game. Hartzell breaks down what makes her team so stingy.
“I think whatever our game plan is defensively, our players do a great job of executing,” Hartzell says. “We played a ‘diamond and one’ (defense) on Sunday (in CACC title win against Caldwell) and we had never even practiced it. We didn’t even really talk much about it and (the players) kind of just figured it out on their own. It got better and better as the game went on. Our players, obviously they’re really smart being at this school, and that carries over to the court.”
The Bentley team that the Devils will play in the first round is also 26-5 and hails from the Northeast-10.
“They’re very big” Hartzell says. “They have the all-time leading scorer in Bentley program history (senior forward Jen Gemma) and she is a post player. They also have some guards who can shoot it. They are very well coached.”
It will be a big challenge, but one Hartzell says her team is ready for.
“We’re all so excited,” she says. “But we want to keep getting better and maybe get another win or two . . . or three in the regional tournament.”
Sciences and Bentley will play at noon on Friday. The winner gets the winner of Queens and Assumption in the second round on Saturday.