Editor Note: Records, stats and rankings are reflective of before Wednesday, Feb. 15, games.
Once again, the New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) Championship Tournament is right around the corner, meaning New Jersey colleges will have their own version of the “Madness” in late February.
As the women’s basketball rankings currently stand, with Kean University in the first position, Rutgers University-Newark at the bottom and Rowan holds the third seed. Only the top six teams qualify for the single elimination tournament, and the regular season shuts down Wednesday nigh to solidify who qualifies for the playoffs.
That being said, Rutgers-Newark, Rutgers-Camden, Stockton and Montclair State have all been eliminated from playoff contention.
The Profs have amassed a 16-8 record this season, going 12-5 in conference play while playing each NJAC opponent twice. Throughout their five losses, they fell to the same team only once, New Jersey City University (NJCU)
Rowan won the NJAC in the 2019-2020 season, while getting eliminated in the semifinals last season. This year they have brought back experienced veterans, two 1,000-point scorers and some new additions who have made substantial contributions to the team.
Rowan could face any of the top six teams in the bracket throughout the tournament, so let’s break down what these matchups would entail.
Kean University Cougars (15-9) (13-4)
Although Kean leads the conference, Rowan has taken them down twice. In January they beat them 79-66, and in the beginning of the month 78-76.
Now, they do have last year’s NJAC Player of the Year in Shannon McCoy, who combined for 41 points in the two games against the Profs this season.
The Cougars squad has experience as well, with five out of their six top scorers being upperclassmen. If all five players on the floor can play solid defense for the Profs and box out throughout the game, Rowan will be able to handle Kean. Senior Dakota Adams provided some insight on the last matchup, and what the Profs would have to do in a potential NJAC matchup.
“Definitely box out, at the end of the game last time [we didn’t do that], and make our foul shots that would separate us a lot,” Adams said. “Just defense, when we played them our offense wasn’t bad, our defense we could’ve done better. Definitely find their shooters, get them off the three-point line, and just take more pride in boxing out and our defense.”
NJCU Gothic Knights (13-10) (13-4)
Technically speaking, Rowan hasn’t beaten NJCU since Jan. 5, 2022, which was considered a forfeit win last season. The Gothic Knights took down the Profs in the semifinals of the tournament last season and twice this year.
“Our toughest opponents the last couple of years has been Jersey City,” said Head Coach Demetrius Poles. “They have a very dynamic player, and we’ll be ready for them too next time we play.”
The dynamic player Coach Poles is referring to is Damaris Rodriguez, who is the conference-leading scorer averaging 25 points per game. She posted her first career triple-double against Rowan on Wednesday, Feb. 8, in their 93-76 loss.
The simple answer would be to shut Rodriguez down, but that’s easier said than done.
The 5-foot-3-inch guard could probably pick defenses apart one-handed. The two-time defending NJAC Champs would be an exciting matchup for the Profs, which could come down to high scorers on each squad.
“I want to say NJCU because of what happened last year,” Adams said. “The feeling would be so much better beating NJCU.”
Ramapo College Roadrunners (16-8) (10-7)
Ramapo has had a very up-and-down season. They have the potential to be one of the better teams in the conference, but have lost to teams like Stockton and Montclair State and also split series with NJCU and Kean.
The Roadrunners have very skilled guards who are speedy and can score once they get hot, the downside is that they are missing size, which is something Rowan can take advantage of.
“We’re a bad matchup for them,” Coach Poles said. “They don’t have a lot of size, they have a lot of quickness and speed, we have a lot of size against them it kind of hurts them, and we have speed.”
Rowan has 54 combined points in the paint between the two match-ups and scored 19 points off fast breaks the first time the teams squared off. The Profs have the edge in this potential match-up.
The College of New Jersey (TCNJ) Lions (15-9) (10-7)
Rowan first played TCNJ back in November, which was before the team developed their true chemistry and their rotations of players on the floor.
The Profs hit one three-pointer in 16 attempts, while Nina Branchizio herself went 5-11 from downtown in the Profs’ 71-52 loss.
“It was really the beginning of the season where we didn’t have the best chemistry, we were still trying to get to know each other, and now later in the season we’re better with each other we know what we’re all capable of. I think that if we were to play them it would probably be the same type of outcome as the second game we played against them,” Adams said. “But the difficult part was getting them off the three-point line and their transition threes were a killer.”
The Lions got off 34 triples in game two, although they only hit six in their 60-45 loss against Rowan. Allowing a team who shoots 32% from beyond the arc get off that many attempts could be dangerous come tournament play.
William Paterson University Pioneers (14-10) (9-8)
Rounding out the top six teams in the conference are the Pioneers. Although they are only one game over .500 in the conference they are a tough and gritty team. They have been in four overtime games this season, including both matchups against Rowan where the teams split.
William Paterson has a decent size and a good post presence with Justina Cabezas. They also have Brianna Smith who isn’t afraid to shoot and found her stroke against Rowan the first time the teams squared off, dropping 36 points.
Late in the fourth quarter of that matchup, Rowan was up by 18, with the starters out and the bench trying to hold down the fort. The Pioneers outscored the Profs 19-1 in the last 3:30 minutes, and Smith hit a game-tying three to send the game into overtime.
The Pioneers had the momentum and closed out the game 90-84 in Glassboro. Adams gave her insight from the two matchups this season.
“From the top six teams, where ‘anything could happen’ would be William Paterson just because of what happened the first time and our overtime win,” Adams said. “I know that’s just a really relentless team.”
The Pioneers are a team that won’t go down easy, and it would take a lockdown defensively and a full team effort in all facets in this potentially exciting faceoff.
Although the remaining four teams are eliminated from the championship, Coach Poles cites the importance of playing to their high standards, especially in their regular season closer against Montclair State University on Wednesday, Feb. 15.
“We can’t beat ourselves,” Coach Poles said. “We can’t get sloppy, we can’t play unfocused. We have to make sure we’re sharing the ball, we’re following the game plan the coaches set in so we can make sure we’re efficient, not turning the ball over, taking good shots and playing good defense.”
The NJAC tournament is shaping up to be extremely competitive, and with the way the conference games have gone this season, the trophy is within reach for any of the top six teams. Rowan has played significantly better in the latter part of the season, but the NJAC always proves to be wild in the most thrilling parts of the season.
“We gotta play who we gotta play,” Coach Poles said. “There’s no ducking anybody and we have to make sure we handle our business in terms of getting to the NCAA tournament.”
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