Saints surprise everyone

Emmanuel has done a little celebrating already this March, and hopes to do some more.
Emmanuel athletics photo

By Andrew Lovell

The Emmanuel women's basketball team looks different every season. But it looked particularly odd to head coach Andy Yosinoff at the start of this year.

Five players of at least 6-feet and no pure point guard. Yosinoff was accustomed to the opposite -- dynamic backcourt play, highlighted by a pure distributor.

So excuse the 35-year veteran and winner of 685 career games if he considers his team's Sweet 16 run "a bit of a Cinderella" story.

"I would say, of all my teams, this team ... they had to work the hardest and maybe surprised me the most," Yosinoff said.

The Saints have adopted the identity you might expect from a team with five 6-foot post players -- one of solid rebounding and strong defense. Emmanuel has outrebounded its opponents by an average of nine boards per game this season. But Yosinoff points to the team's defense, which has held opponents to a 33 percent field goal percentage and an average of 59 points per game this season.

"We have no superstar, and we're definitely not as athletic as my prior teams, but we're probably playing the best man-to-man defense of any of my teams," Yosinoff said.

And, in an ironic twist, the Saints rank No. 2 in the country in assists (one year after ranking No. 1), despite the loss of point guard Casey Shevlin to graduation.

The result has been the program's third Sweet 16 appearance, and first since 2007 (Emmanuel reached the Final Four in 2001). Emmanuel enters this weekend on a 12-game winning streak, including wins over Suffolk and St. Joseph's (Maine) in the GNAC conference tournament, and wins over Hartwick and Rhode Island College in the NCAA Tournament.

The Saints haven't lost since suffering back-to-back defeats against NESCAC opponents Tufts and Wesleyan on Jan. 24 and Jan. 25, respectively. In fact, five of Emmanuel's six losses this season have come against NESCAC teams. Two of those teams -- Amherst and Tufts -- stand with Emmanuel among the remaining teams in the field.

Yosinoff may not have a true superstar, but he does have a player he considers among the elite in New England -- senior guard Meghan Kirwan. Kirwan, who transferred from Division II UMass-Lowell and started immediately as a junior last season, contributes in virtually aspect of the game. She ranks second on the team in scoring (13.8 PPG), third in rebounding (6.3 RPG), first in assists (109) and first in steals (90).

Kirwan and fellow senior co-captain Breanna Ockimey have set the tone, particularly over the last two weeks, but junior forward Fiona O'Dwyer has been indispensable on the court. O'Dwyer leads the team in scoring (14.4 PPG) and rebounding (8.3 RPG), and scored a game-high 24 points against Hartwick in the NCAA opener.

Meghan Kirwan is Emmanuel's top ball-handler and has scored 27 points in two NCAA Tournament games.
Emmanuel athletics photo

Three freshmen -- forward Lena Negri, point guard Britni Mikulanecz and Vanessa Bramante -- have fortified Emmanuel's 9-11 player nightly rotation.

"It's been a combination of youth and experience, and we just went to another level at the right time," Yosinoff said. "... We're not afraid to play anybody at this point."

Negri, in particular, was dominant against Rhode Island College, tallying six points, 16 rebounds and three blocks in 33 minutes off the bench. Junior reserve Laura Benvenuto sank a tough layup to give Emmanuel a one-point lead late in the second half, and junior Chenae Earl drained a key three-pointer a few minutes prior to help Emmanuel pull out the win.

For Yosinoff -- a Providence, R.I., native and a University of Rhode Island alumnus -- the win over Rhode Island College was particularly sweet. His 93-year-old father once attended Rhode Island College. The game, played at The Murray Center in Providence, was filled with friends and family.

"In my 35 years, other than 2001 when we beat NYU in the national quarterfinals, I think this is the second-biggest victory ever. It was unbelievable," Yosinoff said. "... For Division III, it was just a war defensively."

Now the Saints prepare for another trip within New England, as they head up to Amherst to face King's on Friday. King's defeated William Paterson 64-63 behind Celia Rader's three-point explosion. Rader drained nine of her 13 attempts to tie an NCAA record. As a team, the Monarchs attempted 37 three-pointers against the Pioneers.

Should the Saints advance, an Elite Eight matchup with Amherst likely will await. But Yosinoff isn't looking that far ahead. He'd rather look back at what his team his accomplished so far this season.

"If not my most, it's one of my most enjoyable [and] satisfying seasons I've had in a long, long time," Yosinoff said. "If you told me we were going to beat Rhode Island College a month ago, I'd say you're crazy, because they're a great team. ...

"It'll be an exciting weekend. We're ready to roll."