LI Herald: Molloy Women's Hoops has Historic Season
By Brian Kacharaba
The Molloy Lions trailed top-seeded Adelphi 58-57 with just 7.2 seconds remaining in the second round of the NCAA Division II women's basketball tournament on March 11. The fate of their already historic season came down to one final play.
Following a timeout, graduate student Kamala Thompson inbounded the ball in the offensive zone to Aliyah McDonald and headed straight to the basket. McDonald caught the ball near the right sideline, and as she dribbled toward the hoop, her defender was backpedaling so fast that she tumbled to the floor, giving the senior guard a chance to win the game. She moved to the top of the key and took an uncontested arcing shot, but the ball hit the right side of the rim and the backboard.
Many thought the Lions' dream season would come to a heartbreaking end with that miss. But Thompson, who was jostling with two Panthers and a teammate under the basket, grabbed the rebound with 1.7 seconds left, leaned back and banked in a one-handed shot that left her hand a half second before the buzzer sounded, sending Molloy to its first-ever Sweet 16.
The Lions' season ended two nights later, with a 70-60 loss to second-seeded Queens College, but Thompson's moment symbolized the entire season for coach Joe Pellicane and his team. Months after completing a 12-17 campaign in 2015-16, the Molloy women broke the school record with 24 wins en route to the East Coast Conference championship.
"Those kids, they battled last year," Pellicane said. "It was a losing season on paper. But going forward, with these young ladies, you take one person out of the equation, you don't make the Sweet 16. Just one person. [The Queens loss] doesn't detract from the terrific job they did."
The previous mark for wins was 22, in the 2009-10 season, which was also the last time the women's program, which started in 1985-86, had a winning record.
"I don't think [the magnitude] hit us at any time during the season," said Thompson, who was not on last year's team. "We were always, What are we going to do the next game? We were always focused on next, next, next and what we needed to do better."
Thompson started all 30 games, and led the team in scoring (averaging 15.5 points) and rebounding (8.7). McDonald was just behind her, with 14.4 points per game, nearly double her 2015-16 mark of 7.4.
Molloy started the season with four straight wins and six in its first eight games before a nine-game winning streak from Dec. 29 to Jan. 28. But the run came at a price. Graduate student Symone Kelly, whom Pellicane called "an inspiration," suffered her second torn ACL in as many years after catching a pass in the air and landing awkwardly just minutes into a game against St. Thomas Aquinas on Jan. 21.
Normally, a player would need about a year to recover from that kind of an injury, but Kelly was determined to get back onto the court to complete her final season, and extensively rehabbed her left leg. She returned to the lineup against the University of the District of Columbia on Feb. 22, having missed only six games. Molloy won 72-53 to snap a three-game losing streak.
"I was here working on my strength, and I also outsourced physical therapy," Kelly said. "I was doubling here and there between three and four times a week, so I was really working on getting my quad and my hamstring strong, and once my left leg was as strong as my right leg, they let me come back."
Despite the injury, Kelly was the team's top shot blocker - she had 23 for the season - and field-goal shooter (.502 percentage).
Getting to the NCAA tournament wasn't easy. In the opener of the ECC tournament in Bridgeport, Conn., Molloy trailed St. Thomas by 8 points late in the first half before rallying for 44 in the second half for a 75-55 victory.
The Lions' backs were against the wall once more the following afternoon against the New York Institute of Technology in the ECC final. Thompson hit two free throws with just under a minute left to tie the game at 54. On the Bears' ensuing possession, McDonald intercepted a pass and put in an uncontested layup with 41 seconds left to give Molloy the lead for good. With the win, the Lions qualified for an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament, and were seeded fifth in the East Bracket.
"It was either I get the steal, or they get an easy backdoor layup," McDonald recalled. "It was really risky. I didn't have the offensive flow the whole game, so I knew I had to pick it up on the defensive end."
More than half the team's current roster will not be back next season, including Thompson, McDonald and Kelly, the team's top three scorers; Maggie Salomone, who had 11 points in the opener of the ECC tournament; and Jessica Kalbfleisch, another dependable rebounder and shot blocker.
The team will now turn to sophomores McKayla Hernandez and Ihnacinse Grady, junior Sabrina Rodriguez and freshmen Kathryn Gibson, who hit four 3-pointers in the ECC championship game, and Maya Joyner to build a foundation for the future. Pellicane said that this season's success would only help him recruit new players.
"McKayla would give you everything she had," he said. "Ihny has been here two years, and Maya - her future's in her hands. Kathryn Gibson is just genuine to her teammates, and the coaching staff realized back in September that this kid's motor and desire is exceptional. That's a nice core group to have."
Thompson, who said she hoped to enroll in Molloy's doctoral program, recently self-published a book titled "Defying the Odds: On the Pursuit of Success," an inspirational work that defines success from several perspectives. McDonald will graduate in May with a bachelor's degree in business management, and Kelly will receive an MBA in management.