One of the biggest games of the 2021 Presidents’ Athletic Conference women’s basketball regular season never happened.
Thanks to – what else? – COVID-19, Washington & Jefferson and Grove City’s matchup scheduled for March 3 was postponed. The Presidents didn’t get to play their last three regular-season games and hadn’t played a game in March before Monday’s conference quarterfinal win over Bethany.
The pandemic stopped the 2020 PAC title game participants from playing in the 2021 regular season, but didn’t stop either team from remaining among the PAC’s elite. The two programs, along with St. Vincent, have been the conference’s Big 3 over the past three years, ever since queen bee Thomas More departed after the 2017-18 season.
In a shortened 2021 campaign, W&J and Grove City combined to go 15-1, with W&J winning all seven of its regular-season games and Grove City’s only loss being a four-point overtime barn burner at St. Vincent.
When the teams finally did meet Wednesday night in the PAC semifinals, it was expected to be, if not an instant classic, at least a highly competitive basketball game.
It didn’t quite turn out that way.
With no spectators inside Salvitti Family Gymnasium – aside from those who were getting their nighttime workouts in the fitness center that overlooks the court – the first quarter was, as it was supposed to be, tight, and ended with Grove City leading 19-17.
The rest of the night belonged to the Presidents.
W&J held the Wolverines to 23 points in the final 30 minutes to pull away for a 62-40 win. The Presidents (8-0) are going back to the conference title game, and there will be a new PAC champ in 2021.
Coming out of a two-week quarantine, and 48 hours removed from nearly getting upset by seventh-seeded Bethany, the Presidents looked like a team that had returned to form.
“We have four (seniors) that have put their heart and soul into this program, and they’re not going down,” coach Jina DeRubbo said. “That’s their mindset. They beat us last year in the championship by 2, and they remember that. They’ve been through a lot. They just got out of quarantine and were dedicated through that.”
As usual, Alie Seto led the way offensively. Seto, who leads the Presidents and is third in the conference with more than 17 points per game, scored 19 and shot 8-10 from the field.
Lauren Gilbert wasn’t far behind with 17 points, and Hannah Johnston scored 10 while tying career-high with 11 rebounds for her first career double-double.
Perhaps Johnston’s biggest contribution was that she played a major role in locking down Grove City’s best player, Jess Bowen.
The PAC’s leading scorer came into the game having been held under double figures just twice in the past 37 games but scored only seven points against W&J.
“Our coaches prepared us really well,” Johnston said. “We knew a lot of their plays, we knew exactly what we had to do. So I think that we were really prepared for the game and we all gave a really good effort. We were focused, and we shut her down.”
Another reason for W&J’s defensive success, DeRubbo said, was the offense’s ability to take care of the basketball against Grove City’s vaunted press. The Presidents did turn it over 24 times, but that’s three below the Wolverines’ season average. Keeping the basketball limited one of Grove City’s greatest strengths, which is scoring in transition.
“We said if we don’t turn the ball over, they can’t score all those layups,” she said. “I told them before the game, ‘if we can keep it a half-court game, we’re going to win.’ We made it a half-court game.”
For Johnston, everything became more relaxed offensively after the first quarter.
“This was the first time this season that we had seen a press like this,” Johnston said. “So we were just getting adjusted to that.”
The Presidents haven’t won a conference title since 2006. They’ll have a chance to end that drought Saturday at No.1 St. Vincent. Tipoff is 6 p.m.
Regardless of what happens, DeRubbo is pleased with how her players have made the most of what’s been, at times, a brutal campaign.
“I couldn’t be more proud of this group,” DeRubbo said. “What they’ve overcome and how they’ve stuck together and the dedication they’ve had. It’s been a rough year for everybody, and I could not be more proud of this group of kids.”
The job isn’t done yet, however.
“I told them what a story they’d be able to tell,” DeRubbo said. “If we can get out of a 14-day quarantine and win a championship, they’ll remember that forever.”