In her sophomore season at Jefferson University, Mount St. Joseph graduate Caitlyn Cunningham has earned accolades for both her scoring and her defense. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

by Tom Utescher

Back in early January, a Chestnut Hill College squad with a 2-10 record gave the women of nationally-ranked Jefferson University quite a battle. The Jefferson Lady Rams received 14 points and six assists from Mount St. Joseph Academy graduate Caitlyn Cunningham and were able to prevail, 91-86, to improve to 15-0.

Both members of the NCAA Division II Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference, the Northwest Philly rivals met again last Wednesday in East Falls, and this contest wasn’t as close. The visiting Griffins stayed right with the Lady Rams through the first period, but Jefferson pulled away during a 24-11 second quarter. Chestnut Hill got back within seven points in the middle of the third round, but the Lady Rams were back up by 19 by the end of the quarter and went on to win, 79-65.

Earning a number of top-10 national rankings in Division II, Jefferson had attained a 20-0 record and a number two ranking before losing a Feb. 5 rematch with another nationally-ranked team in its own conference, University of the Sciences.

Two weeks after that, the Lady Rams suffered a CACC buzzer-beater upset at the hands of Georgian Court University. They were still ranked 14th in the nation coming into last Wednesday’s game with Chestnut Hill, and the outcome raised their record to 16-2 in conference play and 25-2 overall.

Chestnut Hill has improved a good deal in the second half of the season, and came into last week’s encounter at Jefferson with a mark of 7-10 in the CACC (9-16 overall). The Griffins’ rising fortunes paralleled the development of freshman forward Leah Miller, who put up a 17-point, 10-rebound double-double to lead CHC against the Lady Rams. Senior forward Jaeda Wildgoose collected 13 points in the contest, leaving her just a dozen shy of 1500 for her CHC career. Fellow senior Mary Trossi, the Griffins’ 5’2” point guard, had scored her 1000th point two nights earlier in a 71-59 CACC win over Nyack College.

For Jefferson, Mount grad Cunningham produced a modest total of six points last Wednesday, but her offensive performance over much of the season has caused opponents to highlight her in their defensive game plans.

On Feb. 9, the redshirt sophomore was named CACC co-Player of the Week as she scored a career-high 32 points against Dominican College, becoming the first Jefferson player to score 30 or more points since 2015. A week later, she was the conference POTW outright, averaging 30 points against two other CACC foes. Changing things up, she earned the designation of Defensive Player of the Week on Feb. 25, setting a new school record by grabbing 12 steals, which was also the top total in all of NCAA Division II this season.

Speaking of Jefferson head coach Tom Shirley, now in his 30th season, the former Mountie said, “Coach has stressed to me about trying to raise my level of play on defense.”

Moving into the starting line-up this season, she related, “I knew that I had to step things up this year. I needed to improve on my left hand, which I’ve been working on, and I’ve been working on my pull-up midrange jumper.”

Jefferson offers a number of five-year academic programs, and many of the players on the basketball team sit out for a redshirt season coming right out of high school, as Cunningham did. It essentially gives them an extra year of experience in the college game according to Coach Shirley, who attained his 773rd career victory last Wednesday evening.

After her redshirt season, Cunningham swung into action as a reserve guard last winter. The team reached the conference finals, succumbing to USciences, but received an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. There, the Lady Rams fell to a top-10 team in the first round.

Freshman forward Leah Miller has come on strong for Chestnut Hill College in the second half of the season. She had 17 points and 11 rebounds at Jefferson last Wednesday. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

Four starters from that team returned, Beverley Kum and Erin Maher on the front row and Jess Kaminski and Plymouth Whitemarsh High School alum Alynna Williams in the back court. Two guards graduated, starter Rachel Day and reserve Kelsey Jones (Mount St. Joseph ’13).

“The missing piece that we thought would materialize was Caitlyn,” Shirley said. “She got a lot of minutes as a redshirt freshman, and she’s now matured into a really great player.”

In addition to the starters, he noted, “We have Sabria [Epps] and Maddie [Haney] and Bridget [Arcidiacono] doing a good job off the bench, so it’s been a real team effort.”

Although Jefferson has been having a much more successful season overall than Chestnut Hill College, the Griffins can still pose a threat as a familiar nearby rival. The teams know each other’s players and tactics, and CHC head coach Mike West worked with Shirley as an assistant coach for four seasons.

After Wednesday’s contest, the Lady Rams’ mentor remarked, “We came out in that three-two zone. We’ve played it a little this year but not as much as tonight, and I thought it was pretty effective.”

In the middle of the first quarter, Cunningham came up with a steal and then assisted on a fast break layup by Kaminski that put the hosts up 10-6. The Griffins didn’t get any farther behind than that, though, and with less than half-a-minute remaining a three-point field goal from the left corner by sophomore Cassie Sebold (eight points total) gave CHC a 16-15 edge. Jefferson’s Maher struck from the arc just before the buzzer, however, and the Lady Rams led 18-16 for the start of the second round.

This turned out to be the beginning of a 16-2 romp by Jefferson. When another steal and assist by Cunningham set up a layup by Williams to cap off this streak, the visitors called timeout, trailing 31-18 with 6:18 remaining in the first half.

When play resumed, two free throws and a layup by Wildgoose and a “three” from the top of the key by junior Shannon Glenn powered a 7-2 run that got the Griffins back within eight points. By halftime, though, the hosts had expanded the gap to 15, 42-27.

The stats showed that Jefferson enjoyed a modest advantage in the first quarter in field goal shooting percentage, but in the second period more than 20 percentage points separated the teams, 50.0 to 27.3 percent.

Two minutes into the second half the Lady Rams led 46-30, then Chestnut Hill rallied. Wildgoose popped in a short jumper and Miller scored from the paint. Freshman guard Lauren Crim hit her third three-pointer of the night, and Miller cashed in on an offensive rebound, making it a seven-point contest (46-39) four minutes into the third quarter.

A 30-second timeout refreshed Jefferson, which came back out to chalk up a pair of free throws by Kum, a jumper from near the foul line by Cunningham and a three-pointer by Williams. Kum, a senior post player, scored 16 of her game-high 26 points during the third period. Near the end of the quarter, the Lady Rams led 67-45, then Griffins freshman Bri Hewlett bagged a “three” at the buzzer.

With Crim netting two more treys to complete her 15-point performance, Chestnut Hill shaved some points off of its deficit in the fourth period, but Jefferson still won comfortably, by 14.

“Cait’s gone through a string of about five or six 30-point games, and tonight Chestnut Hill face-guarded her and Alynna,” Coach Shirley noted. “Cait had six points, but we still scored almost 80, so that shows how other players stepped up.”

Kaminski scored 18 points, handed out five assists and matched CHC’s Miller for the game high in rebounds, with 10. Williams finished with 13 points and five assists, while Kum and Maher (seven points) each grabbed nine rebounds. Cunningham’s six points came with a game-high six assists.

Jefferson’s Shirley said that he reminds his team frequently, “We’re not in the NCAA tournament yet. If we don’t win our conference finals, we’ll need an at-large bid. We’re ranked third in the region right now and winning keeps you where you are, but losing sends you downhill pretty fast.”

Cunningham related that at the start of the Lady Rams’ season, “We knew with who we had back that we had a good chance of making it back to the NCAA’s. We started out playing really well and then we had a few hiccups with Sciences and Georgian Court, but I think those losses have motivated us even more to go as far as we can in playoffs.

“The chemistry’s really great on our team,” she went on. “We all live with each other and we hang out with each other all the time. We eat lunch together, we study together.”

Cunningham has elected to major in finance, with a minor in entrepreneurship. She worked for Pfizer, the pharmaceutical corporation, last summer.

“I was a marketing intern, and there some financial elements to it, as well,” she said. “It was good general business experience.”

The comradeship and commitment shared by the Mount graduate and her teammates didn’t develop by coincidence.

Coach Shirley noted, “When you go out to recruit players, you look for good kids, and you can coach a good kid. These are all really great young ladies. They understand our structure, they understand how we want to play and what we’re trying to accomplish. At a time when people are complaining about the Millennial generation, I really don’t have any complaints.”