By Brendan Coughlin
Rachel Kusz was the star that shined the brightest on the Westfield State University basketball court Saturday afternoon in the MASCAC tournament title game. Bridgewater State University guard Kusz’s three point connection with 37 seconds remaining on the clock would be all the Bears needed to win their fifth consecutive MASCAC championship.
“I knew after I hit the shot that it was a big shot in a big game,” said the senior sharpshooter Kusz. “Hearing the crowd and my team going crazy after the basket was unbelievable.”
The senior won the MASCAC tournament MVP for her outstanding performance as she tallied 16 points, including hitting four of six shots from beyond the arc.
Kusz, along with fellow seniors who have been with the Bears’ program since their freshman year, now have four championship rings.
“Words really can’t explain the feelings of winning a championship, let alone the four I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of,” said Kusz.
The tale of the tape had BSU’s women with a record of 15-10, going up against top-seeded Westfield St. (22-5), including a current 16-game winning streak. The favorited Owls jumped out to a 9-2 lead and seemed ready to dominate.
BSU had other plans as they made an impressive 9-2 run themselves to tie the game. The Bears would take a slim 21-20 lead into the halftime break.
Momentum shifted heavily in BSU’s favor, as Kusz’s jump shot along with senior co-captain Megan Boutilette to open the game up with a double digit lead, 35-25. Boutilette checked out of the game with 16 points, five rebounds, two assists, two blocks, and four steals.
The lead would shift back and forth from there on out. BSU held the slight advantage 45-43, when their senior leader and top scorer Boutilette fouled out of the game with 9:52 remaining in the second half.
Junior Vanesa Conceicao, a main contributor all season, knocked down a three-point try with just under four minutes to play, giving BSU the 56-53 edge.
MASCAC women’s player of the year, and Westfield’s top scorer Jen Ashton made a clutch layup to bring her team within one. The layup came following a clutch rebound and assist from freshman center Rebecca Sapouckey. The next play resulted in a BSU turnover, leading to a foul and two made free throws by the Owls’ Forbasaw Nkamebo.
Westfield was ahead 57-56, when BSU’s savior Kusz came in off of a timeout and knocked down the three-point basket.
The excitement in the Woodward Athletic Center was through the roof. Westfield would have four opportunities to tie the game. The final attempt was taken away by the smart defensive move of BSU’s senior guard Melissa Daigle. Daigle stepped in front of Ashton and took the offensive charging foul, as Ashton’s layup fell in the basket, resulting in a turnover.
BSU would hit one of two free throws, and the game ended with a 60-57 Bear’s upset victory.
“One of the biggest factors in the MASCAC tournament is the amount of heart a team has. This team wanted that fifth straight title from day one of tryouts and we weren’t going to quit until we had it,” said Kusz on the heart of this Bears team. “The coaches put so much time and effort into the program and they always motivate us to want more and push us to be successful.”
“Everyone on the team is still fired up and ready to play the next game.” said Kusz, the new leader for single season three pointers (62) in school history. “I don’t think our team has ever gone into a game worrying about who our competitor is. No matter who we face, the only thing on our minds is playing our best for the 40 minutes.”
BSU’s championship victory gave them an automatic bid in the NCAA Division III national tournament. Bridgewater will face a talented opponent in Salisbury University (25-2) in Salisbury, MD to tip off the NCAA DIII tournament on Friday night (time TBA).
Brendan Coughlin is the Sports Editor of The Comment.