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Black Knights take the Patriot; NCAAs next

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WEST POINT – Not many coaches get the chance to work with a player who eventually becomes the No. 2 pick in the NBA draft. And almost 30 years later, that same coach doesn’t get the chance to equate one of his current players to one of those blasts from his past. Consider Dave Magarity’s trip in the time tunnel complete.

“We had the great equalizer. She is just an incredible player,” the Army women’s coach said of Kelsey Minato. “She is as special a player as I’ve ever coached in my 43 years and 32 years as a head coach. I’ve had some pretty good players, but I don’t know if anyone is as special as this kid.”

He’d surely have no discouraging words after Minato scored 31 points to help lead Army to a 68-58 victory Saturday over Holy Cross at Christl Arena to win the Patriot League tournament and an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Army will find out Monday where and against whom it will be playing in the tournament. First-round games will be played March 22 and 23.

“This year it just felt right with us being the No. 2 seed and Holy Cross beating Navy to give us the opportunity to host the championship game,” said Minato, the sophomore guard whose point total was an all-time league-championship record. “It just felt right. I can’t say enough about the team. We really came together and played our best basketball.”

Holy Cross led by as many as five early in the first half, but a 17-4 Black Knights run – Minato had 10 of them -- gave them a 23-15 lead with 6 minutes, 6 seconds left in the half. The Crusaders countered with seven straight points in 74 seconds to close within a point; Holy Cross got no closer. Army closed out the half with a 10-4 run, taking a 33-26 halftime lead.

“We were down seven at the half,” Holy Cross guard Alex Smith said. “We knew that they are a great program. Kelsey Minato is a phenomenal player. She put the team on her back tonight. They didn’t allow us to get too many stops in a row. We needed three or four stops in a row and capitalize on that with scores. If we did get a stop, they wouldn’t allow us to score or vice versa. When we scored they would come back and score. Basketball is a game of runs. We made our run, but they made one right back at us every single time.”

“I knew that they were going to come out and throw something at us to try and get us off our game,” said Minato, who was named the tournament most valuable player. “The last game against American, we really came out aggressive and that set the pace for the entire game. I kept reminding the team that we needed to come out aggressive from the start and really take advantage of our opportunities. For me, that was a big part of my focus. I was just trying to set the pace, set the tone and control the game.”

The teams had split their two regular-season games, the last one being a 92-85 Holy Cross victory last month. It was the most points Army allowed all season.

“I don’t know if it’s the psychology of sports,” Holy Cross coach Bill Gibbons said. “I don’t know if we got a false sense that we could score against them. Even me, I might be guilty of that. We knew we were going to have trouble scoring against Navy, and we scored. We knew we were going to have trouble scoring against Bucknell. We scored 92 up here. You miss 10 foul shots and that’s big. We only shot 34 percent. We missed a lot of bunnies. We missed some shots we usually make. I don’t want to take anything away from their defense, it was part of it. I don’t know if that psychology of scoring 92 hurts you the next time because you get a false sense that it’s easy to score.”

The only one who could have harbored such a mindset was Minato, who shot 10 of 18 from the field, including 3 of 4 from three-point range. She also hit all eight of her free throws. It was the 48th straight game in which she scored in double figures.

“Really, it was just playing the game and playing the way that got us here,” she said. “It’s a championship game, but it’s the same game we’ve been playing our entire lives. You still have to put the ball in the hoop. You still have to defend. We really had to focus on the game and not the outside distractions. We focused on the game plan and executing on offense and getting stops on defense. We needed to do what we’ve done all year, which is attacking the basket and sharing the ball, and just be confident in ourselves.”

“We were trying to play a no-help defender on her,” Gibbons said. “They ran some different stuff. I’ll second guess myself for not playing a box-in-one or doing something special, especially when [Army guard Jen] Hazlett went out of the game. I thought their other guys did a nice job and hit some shots. [Krishawn Tillett] hit a big three in front of us when we left her open. I’ll second guess myself for not doing something special against Kelsey, but we hadn’t played it all year. As a coach, and I talked to my assistants about this, you don’t want to change anything. She got too many open looks tonight. My one regret this summer will be thinking what if we had played something different.”

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The victory gave Army its second-ever Patriot League title; the first came in 2006. It also is the second time the team has made the NCAAs since moving to Division I. The victory was the Black Knights’ 25th, which set their Division I record. While playing in Division II, Army finished the 1983-84 season 25-3.

Magarity became the second coach to lead both a mens and womens team to the NCAAs. He led Marist to the NCAA tournament in 1987, led by center Rik Smits; the Red Foxes lost in the first round of the tournament to Pittsburgh.

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