The long journey of Robert Morris women’s basketball
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The student section roared with excitement during the final game in the history of the Charles L. Sewall Center, as the ecstatic crowd came storming onto the court as the Robert Morris University women’s basketball team punched their ticket to the NCAA tournament by claiming their third NEC title in the past four seasons.
A team which has won 14 of their last 15 games, finishing with a 22-10 record and the best mark in the Northeast Conference, it seemed as though it was a perfect season for the Robert Morris Colonials.
But what those watching from the outside did not see was the transformation and growth that this team experienced through the struggles and the absolute triumph that this conference championship truly represents.
So let’s go back four months, to the beginning of November. Right on the cusp of a new basketball season, and still so many things were up in the air.
Legendary RMU head coach Sal Buscaglia, a man who had built the winning culture of women’s basketball here in Moon, left his office vacant for his son, Charlie, to fill his exceptionally large shoes.
Charlie had been with the team for the past thirteen seasons, and was responsible for the recruiting that had brought in notable Colonial superstars Artemis Spanou, Anna-Niki Stamolamprou, Ashley Ravelli and Rebeca Navarro.
His value to this team and its success goes unquestioned.
But still, his ability to complete his new role as the face of the team remained unknown.
Many feared that he would simply never be able to live up to the lofty achievements of his old man, rather just drown in the comparisons of a man he too admired greatly.
And while the face of the program gained a much younger look, the product on the court was far different too.
The Colonials would lose their leader in team captain Randi Jackson, who’s presence as a leader showed her value far beyond the statistics, floor general Ashley Ravelli, finishing her Colonial career 9th all time with 285 career assists and fourth all-time with 196 three-point field goals, and Lou Mataly, another Italian who’s ability to shoot from long distance had her ranked 11th on the all-time three-point shooting list.
As a result, Robert Morris was not projected to finish first in the NEC preseason poll for the first time in four seasons.
Nobody was expecting anything spectacular from this Colonials squad. And for the first half of the season, Robert Morris looked to meet those average expectations.
The team rolled into mid-January increasingly middle of the road. A record of 8-9 overall and 3-3 in the conference.
The Colonials had just been dismantled by a Saint Francis team that appeared to be playing on a level Robert Morris didn’t even know existed. They would go on to defeat coach Buscaglia’s squad 70-55, leading by as much as 28 in one of the Colonials’ worst losses of the season.
Robert Morris sat disappointingly in fifth place in the conference, a spot that at the moment they appeared destined to remain in.
But something was happening which could not be seen by the naked eye, all the puzzle pieces were beginning to fall into place and coach Buscaglia’s complete philosophical overhaul was almost complete.
A new system, an evolving culture, which coach Buscaglia was creating, finally began to settle in. And emerging from his father’s shadow came the brand new Robert Morris Colonials, primed and ready for battle.
And with them came the winning streak.
Over the span of more than a month, RMU the exact vision which coach Buscaglia had for his team at the start of this long journey.
Everything was there, the Colonials were averaging nearly 60 points per game, shooting at 41.4%, only allowing a paltry 51.2 points per game and their star, NEC player of the year, Anna-Niki Stamolamprou was averaging 17 points per game.
Young players like Nneka Ezeigbo, Ja’lynn Burton-Jones and Nadege Pluviose began to come into their own, contributing to an already deep bench with Nia Adams, Shakema Dashiell and Mikalah Mulrain. They became a team which could see as many as 11 players get on the scoreboard in a single game, something unheard of in the Northeast Conference.
Robert Morris would finish out the season winning 11 of their last 12 games and claiming the first seed in the NEC tournament.
That’s when the world finally took notice, these Robert Morris women were something special.
But it wasn’t just the numbers and skill that has flung the RMU Colonials into the NCAA tournament, it is the energy, the heart and the chemistry which has been developed from a very special group of coaches and players.
Starting with the heart and the hustle of Anna-Niki Stamolamprou, a fierce competitor who wants nothing more than to win but never goes a game without breaking a smile.
The leadership and patience of Janee Brown, a player who’s durability is unlike any player in RMU history. Patiently waiting until her turn senior year to be the true floor general, running the offense flawlessly. Her ability to stay upbeat despite missing what could be the biggest game of her life is nothing but astounding, and a trait not seen from many athletes.
Continuing with the incredible toughness of Megan Smith, who continues to take tough hits to the floor, fighting through the pain in every single game to be one of the Colonials’ most valuable all-around assets on the floor.
The resilience of Rebeca Navarro, a player who despite some cold shooting in the NEC tournament, continued to shoot compete and play her heart out, hitting the shots when they mattered, never being deterred while being the perfect compliment to Stamolamprou.
The eye-popping emergence of freshman Nneka Ezeigbo, who when she struggled to handle the passes in the paint at the beginning of the season, continued to work and perfect her came to transform into an invaluable asset on the boards.
These incredible players, along with every other Colonial on this squad, have embodied the culture established this season by coach Buscaglia, along with coaches Scott Schneider and Kimberly Dweck, to create an environment in which all of these players genuinely care for one another.
A culture where in each and every game, these athletes not only go to battle for their school but for every single member of that team, from the head coach down to the equipment managers.
No matter what happens in the game on Friday against the perennial power that is Notre Dame, this season which the Robert Morris Colonials have put together has been nothing short of magical, with all the twists and turns of a Hollywood movie. It will truly be heart breaking to see it end.
But one thing is for certain, Anna-Niki Stamolamprou and the rest of the Colonials will give the school one final sendoff which should make every single student here at Robert Morris University truly proud to be a Colonial.
16-seeds have conquered the 1-seeds of women’s basketball before, and this team could be the one to make it happen one more time.