Slippery Rock coach Bobby McGraw received a phone call from SRU Athletic Director Paul Lueken ahead of the season finale matchup with Gannon University on March 2. Lueken informed McGraw his team was officially eliminated from conference tournament contention due to a statistical tie-breaker between Gannon, Pitt-Johnstown and The Rock.
Previously believing the Slippery Rock University women’s basketball would play Gannon in a pseudo-playoff game for the final playoff berth, McGraw was forced to admit that his team underachieved this season.
“I know what we have coming back, however, I knew what we had coming into this season and at the end of the day we underachieved,” McGraw said. “Anyone who tells you different is not being honest with themselves.”
The Senior Night contest against Gannon ended serving as the unceremonious end of the season for SRU. However, McGraw said he could not have been prouder of how his team ended the season “the right way.”
A 71-67 win over the Golden Knights, an emotionally charged affair, was the swan song for redshirt senior guard Ciara Patterson and senior forward Morgan Henderson. Fittingly, Patterson sank a pair of clutch free throws—to go along with her 13 points—to ice the game while Henderson pulled in a team-high eight rebounds.
McGraw emphasized how replacing the veteran stars would be a team effort in the seasons to come.
“There’s no replacing them heading into next year. That’s going to take a couple of years. You have one of the best rebounders in program history and one of the best perimeter shooters in program history,” said McGraw. “We have a ton coming back so I’m not crying or staying awake at night, but you don’t replace them right away.”
Despite the victory in the season finale, SRU three of the last four Pennsylvania State Athletic conference games of the season to limp to a 12-16 (9-12 PSAC) record. Victories over East Stroudsburg University and no. 10 California University (Pa.) highlighted a few impressive wins.
The upset over Cal-U especially was indicative of how far the Green and White have come under McGraw during his five years with the team, according to McGraw.
“We finally ended the Cal curse. It was 17 years and 36 straight games and beating the tenth-ranked team in the nation—that’s the highest ranked team we’ve ever beaten,” McGraw said. “That’s in 50 years of existence. The biggest thing is that we’re inching closer to the top of this league and the win against Cal just showed it.”
Encouraging victories aside, a porous defense plagued SRU all year. The leaky defense—which ranked dead last in points allowed per game in the PSAC—was especially noticeable in games against PSAC powerhouses in no. 4 Indiana University (Pa.) and Edinboro University.
Until consistent effort is established on the defensive side of the ball, SRU will be unable to make that leap to the next level of the conference, said McGraw.
“If people think not playing defense and scoring the ball works, we watched the conference tournament, and it doesn’t work,” McGraw said. “That’s why we were at home. Forget the three-way tie, and ‘we should have been in.’ No, we shouldn’t. We didn’t do enough to get in the conference tournament because we didn’t guard well enough on a consistent basis.”
The Rock’s 76 points allowed per game was almost a full four points lower than the next worse team. For comparison, four of the top six teams in the PSAC ranked inside the top seven in defensive scoring efficiency.
Despite having a leading PSAC rebounder in Henderson, the Green and White allowed a PSAC-high 42.5 rebounds per game which equated to a 4.4 rebound deficit per game.
“Guarding and rebounding every day. Every time we take the floor, and in every game situation. We could win other leagues playing the way we do, but we will not be able to get to the next tier of the PSAC if we do not defend and rebound every single time we take the floor,” McGraw said.
While team defense took a hit during the season, The Rock’s offense clicked for the highest scoring season since 2000-2001. Junior guard Brooke Hinderliter led the team with 18.3 points per game while shooting 44.3 percent from the field and 83.2 percent from the free throw line.
Hinderliter was named to the All-PSAC-West second team for the second consecutive season. She finished seventh in the conference in scoring while her free throw percentage and field goal percentage ranked fifth and tenth, respectively.
Patterson supplied SRU with a consistent 3-point shooting threat each game, connecting on 71 threes during the season. Her 34.3 percent conversion rate led the team while her 13.4 points per game ranked second.
Sophomore guard Daeja Quick and junior guard Madison each chipped in 8.6 points per game. Quick led the team with 84 assists—nearly double the next leading passer. Johnson came off the bench in all but nine games to provide SRU with a potent scoring-rebounding threat.
Despite being an inefficient shooting offense, ranking toward the bottom of the PSAC in field goal and 3-point shooting percentage, SRU turned the ball over less than any team in the conference. A positive turnover margin highlighted how well the Green and White took care of the ball.
“I don’t know if we ended up eclipsing the program scoring record per game, but we scored the ball very well and took care of the ball incredibly well. The program record for fewest turnovers in a season was in the 2015-16 season and we were right there,” said McGraw.
Despite the underwhelming season, McGraw’s squad returns a strong veteran core led by Hinderliter, Quick and Johnson. Freshman guard Olivia Fusaro showed flashes of starting potential, highlighted by a 15-point, 5-rebound performance against IUP.
A few underclassmen—freshman Marissa Hopson, redshirt sophomore Kasch Harris and sophomore Skyla O’Connor—were tabbed by McGraw as potential starters next season.
“Skyla O’Conner has all the God-given physical ability that she’s blessed with but that’ll be up to her. Marissa Hopson has all the basketball IQ in the world, but it’ll be up to her how many minutes she plays next year. The only thing that holds Kasch [Harris] back is stuff she can’t control; her knees are bad. Those three will make the biggest impact next season but that’ll be up to them. How hard they work in the offseason, what kind of shape they come in,” McGraw said.
With a veteran core in place, a few underclassmen primed for breakout seasons and a new class of freshmen due in the fall, McGraw is excited for the 2019-20 season to get underway.
However, until August, McGraw can only look forward to the new season and reflect on the past season. In that state of limbo, McGraw expressed how the Cal-U upset would be a memory that he wouldn’t soon forget.
“That Cal game [that we won], especially because we had them down there, and we got them up here. The players’ faces and how raucous the locker room was afterwards—not over the top but they were excited,” said McGraw.
Looking ahead to next season, McGraw said that while it’s still too early to make predictions—with the influx of Division I transfers landing at PSAC schools over the next few months—about next season, he could offer a promise.
“We will be a better defensive team next year. I assure you,” McGraw said.