Things don’t always go as planned. If you’re looking for any proof of that, coach Robert McGraw will give you some. All you need to do is look at his team from this season. Before a two-week hiatus, the women’s basketball team sat at 10-3 and were receiving votes to be ranked. After their two-week COVID-19 break, they went 2-13.
Things started out better than they have in a long time for The Rock. After splitting their first two games, they went on a five-game winning streak. The streak included two Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) wins, something that was very hard to come by in 2019.
But just when things seemed good, The Rock got a taste of injuries, which is something that would plague them for the rest of the season.
“When we got to 10-3, we were receiving votes in the Atlantic region for the first time in 20 years and we’re going to have some national statistic award winners in Daeja Quick and Jamiyah Johnson, so the year overall was tremendous,” McGraw said. “There were just a lot of things that happened this year from injuries to COVID-19, and things fell apart.”
Coach McGraw noted that any time they lost in the early stretch was when one of their key players wasn’t available. One of those key times was against Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, when they were without Isabellah Middleton.
After a two-game losing streak, The Rock once again jumped out to a four-game winning streak. Three of which were PSAC wins and set The Rock at 10-3 (5-2). That was when trouble hit. COVID-19 was in the midst of one it’s largest spikes since 2020.
That COVID-19 break lasted 14 days. In those two weeks, they weren’t able to meet, practice or play games in person. For any team that would disrupt chemistry, but from there, The Rock was never able to find their footing again.
In their first game back from the COVID-19 layoff, the team was without Jamiyah Johnson and as a result lost to Edinboro University by 16 points. The next two games they were without Daeja Quick due to a ruling by the university. In those two games, they lost by a combined 31 points.
Even getting those two back couldn’t help fix things. They went on to lose their next seven games. Two of those losses were to rival Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP), but in the second matchup they lost a heartbreaker.
“I felt awful for the girls, the bus sounded like a morgue on the way home after losing to them in double overtime on the road,” McGraw said. “They’re our arch-rival and a school we hadn’t beat in 28 straight, so it hurt.”
The Rock followed that game up with a big win over Mercyhurst University in overtime. The 75-73 win marked The Rock’s first win in a month and eight days. The win offered some hope that they could possibly sneak into the playoffs, but a few days later Gannon University came to town and put The Rock right back into a losing slump.
This time the slump would cost them any shot at postseason contention. The nine-game losing streak had a team that once sat at 10-3, at 10-12. Back to under .500 and it seemed that as more things changed, the more they had stayed the same.
The Rock dropped two more games before making their final trip of the season to Mercyhurst. To coach McGraw, that game meant a lot.
“I told those guys in their final practice that Friday, because of our unique position in the PSAC where not every team makes the conference tournament, that it’s rare that you can end your career with a victory and not be a national champion,” McGraw said. “Because every other team that doesn’t win the tournament is ending with a loss, and our seniors are walking away with a W.”
Those seniors were Quick and Johnson. Quick has been with the program for a long time. This team was her team. It was always supposed to be that way. After the departure of Brooke Hinderliter, Quick was in charge of the team. Then COVID-19 hit, and McGraw didn’t know if she would come back. In the end, loyalty brought Quick back. McGraw notes that she could’ve transferred almost anywhere she wanted to, but she stuck with him.
“She could’ve went anywhere she wanted this year, she could’ve went to Cal-U [California University of Pennsylvania] and been the starting point guard and won a PSAC title,” McGraw said. “They might have even win a national title, I don’t know, but she was committed to this place, and we love her for that.”
Johnson came in, and also contributed a lot to this team. She broke the record for most rebounds in a season at The Rock. Her play changed the way that McGraw sees the center position. Now Kelley McKnight will step into the position after a year under her, and McGraw expects her to be more than ready. Regardless, McGraw says he can’t say enough about Quick and Johnson.
“We can’t thank them enough for their effort, leadership and ability to bring this team together this year,” McGraw said. “Even though we didn’t finish the way we wanted to record wise, I’ve never had more fun with a team, I’ve never been in more exciting games and I’m proud with how we finished the year out.”
The Middleton twins will also play a key role in the future of The Rock. Isabellah had her season cut short by an injury, but when she was on the court with her sister, Kennedy, McGraw felt that they dominated.
This year wasn’t only riddled with injuries and COVID-19, but also with missed opportunities. The Rock was in a lot of games this season, but second half droughts and the lack of ability to finish games also hurt.
That’s something the entire team acknowledges, and it’s something that will drive their hunger even more according to McGraw. But the story of the season comes a close earlier than expected, and they aren’t blaming anyone or anything but themselves.
“[In this locker room] it’s not poor us, we know we left money on the table,” McGraw said.