Saint Joseph's 47, Fordham 46
Saint Joseph's coach Cindy Griffin was thrilled to get her alma mater back to the NCAA tournament.
Natasha Cloud scored 15 points to help the Hawks rally to beat Fordham 47-46 and win the Atlantic 10 on Saturday night, earning the Hawks their first trip to the NCAAs since 2000.
''It's been a long time coming,'' said Griffin with the championship net draped around her neck. ''We're going to enjoy Monday night. I'm going to enjoy seeing Saint Joseph's name come up. This isn't just for the players on the team now. It's also for the players that have preceded them and come up empty.''
Griffin helped get the Hawks to three NCAA tournaments during her playing career at the school which ended in 1992.
Saint Joseph's hadn't won the conference since 1999 when current Fordham coach Stephanie Gaitley was in charge. The Hawks got an at-large bid the next season.
''It means a lot,'' senior Ashley Prim said. ''I'm so excited for my team. Everyone stepped up. We did it, we did it. This is what the seniors are leaving off to the next class.''
It wasn't easy. The Hawks were down 12-0 before rallying. They trailed by eight early in the second half then Cloud took over. She scored 10 of her points in the second half, including five during a burst that gave the Hawks their first lead of the game.
''Coach, and the team as well, harped on me to be more aggressive as a scorer this year,'' said Cloud, who earned outstanding player of the tournament honors. ''Coach told me to keep shooting the ball.''
Saint Joseph's (23-8) led by four before Marah Strickland hit a 3-pointer with 3:58 that made it 40-39. Moments later Abigail Corning hit a 3 to give Fordham the lead with 3:12 left.
The two teams then traded baskets before Chatilla van Grinsven hit two free throws with 1:47 left to make it 47-45. Those would be the last points for the Hawks.
Fordham's Erin Rooney hit one free throw with 30 seconds left after both teams missed the front end of 1-and-1's. Her second shot rolled off the rim, but Saint Joseph's couldn't corral the rebound giving the Rams one final chance. They couldn't get a shot off as Samantha Clark was called for an offensive foul with 6.7 seconds left.
''These are tough situations when you're a veteran coach,'' Gaitley said. ''I've never lost a game like this. That's what so disappointing. Let the kids determine the outcome. I'd have to look at the call again. I had been arguing for that call on other end. For it to go the other way is hard with the right to go to the NCAA tournament at stake.''
Fordham fouled van Grinsven a few seconds later. She missed both free throws, but Strickland's heave from the opposite foul line was way short setting off a wild celebration.
Strickland scored 16 points to lead the Rams (24-8), who were trying for their first NCAA bid since 1994 when they won the Patriot League.
The fourth-seeded Hawks have an impressive NCAA resume with a victory over then-No. 5 Maryland in November and a win over No. 18 Dayton in the semifinals of the Atlantic 10 tournament.
Despite the tough loss, the Rams have flourished under Gaitley since she came to the school two seasons ago from Monmouth. They reached victory milestones they haven't achieved in decades, clinching their first winning seasons since 1994-95. Fordham also won 10 games out of conference for the first time since 1983-84. Not too shabby for a team that went 0-29 in 2008 to set the NCAA record for futility in a season.
None of the current players were on that team and the Rams have benefited from two stellar transfers. Rooney followed Gaitley from Monmouth when she took over the Rams' program two years ago. Rooney had to sit out last season because of transfer rules, but has made an impact this year.
Strickland also transferred into Fordham after spending time at Maryland and South Carolina.
This was the first year that the women, along with the men, played at the Barclays Center. In the past the women played their tournament on four consecutive days in Philadelphia. Now these two teams had a six-day break to prepare for the final.
Follow Doug on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/dougfeinberg