Women’s basketball season ends against No. 1 seed N.C. State

Published 1:33 pm Tuesday, March 22, 2022

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When Longwood’s historic women’s basketball season reached the end of the road here on Saturday, there was a proud salute from fans who had watched with admiration and pride as the Lancers kept pace with ACC Champion N.C. State on its home court.

In the locker room afterward, there was also gratitude and thanks – most especially for graduate student Tra’dayja Smith, who left it all on the floor of Reynolds Coliseum, scoring 25 points for Longwood in a 96-68 loss broadcast nationally on ESPN.

And there was great hope Longwood’s first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance will just be the start. With the return of players like junior Kayla McMakin, who broke Longwood’s career scoring mark in Saturday’s game, it’s hard not to be optimistic.

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“All of the women in the locker room should be incredibly proud of their season, the historical nature of all of their accomplishments and their performance today,” said Longwood Head Coach Rebecca Tillett afterwards. “Obviously N.C. State is a 1-seed for a good reason. High level of talent. And our women just fought, over and over again.”

Longwood was looking to become just the second No. 16 seed in NCAA history to beat a No. 1 seed. But the Lancers, making their first March Madness appearance in program history and coming off a “First Four” victory on Thursday, kept pace with the Wolfpack through three of the four quarters. The difference was the second, when N.C. State went on a 17-0 run and outscored Longwood 23-6 heading into the break.

N.C. State Coach Wes Moore was impressed with the effort Longwood forced his team to expend to advance. “They’re a scrappy team. They’ve got some kids out there that are really talented and can score the ball,” he said. “They had a lot of weapons. An awesome season. Congrats to them. You’re glad to get the win and move on.”

With a strong Lancer contingent in Raleigh for the game cheering them on, Longwood put together an 8-0 run in the first quarter to keep things tight and grab the attention of ESPN viewers who were expecting a blowout. In the second quarter, N.C. State’s height and depth advantage took over. But Longwood took pride in punching back after halftime, and battling one of the nation’s premier programs even in the third quarter and nearly even in the fourth.

“Just being true competitors,” said Tra’Dayja Smith, who had 15 second-half points and hit 5 3-pointers. “You’re not going to lay down and take punch after punch. You’re going to punch back.”

McMakin had 19 points for the Lancers. Big South Player of the Year Akila Smith added 10 points and 7 rebounds after her 32-point performance Thursday in the First Four victory over Mount St. Mary.

In the locker room after, Tillett said the players performed the end-of-season ritual of speaking individually about all the seniors. There was no doubt who was front and center: Tra’dayja Smith, the heart-and-soul leader who finished out her career with a flourish – an MVP performance in the Big South Tournament, and a heroic 25 points in the losing effort in the second game of the NCAA Tournament.

“Then it all becomes about Dayday and making sure we’re saying proper goodbyes in that moment, because it’s the last time she’s going to put on that uniform,” Tillett said. “An incredible point guard, and incredible mind for the game. Someone who should be coaching a Power 5 team sometime in the future.”

Before Saturday’s game, Tillett had reflected on the remarkable journey Longwood fans will never forget.

“I’m just so thrilled for everything that our program has done this season and the four years it took us to get to that moment,” said Tillet, whose team finished 3-27 in her first season in 2018-19. “So many women to be thankful for, for their investment and sacrifice for our university and our program.”

Regardless of Saturday’s final score, the 2021-2022 women’s basketball season will forever be written in Longwood history. It will also be remembered as a season that propelled the Lancers into the national spotlight, said McMakin, a junior guard from Virginia Beach who garnered All-Big South first-team honors for a third straight year, during Friday’s pre-game press conference.

“One of my teammates said last night we’re putting Longwood on the map,” McMakin said. “Not many people knew about Farmville and Longwood in general. I think the growth and our playing well has helped bring a little bit more attention to a well-deserved school and team.”

The Lancers finished the season with an overall record of 22-12—the first time in the program’s Division I history that it has topped the 20-win plateau. Going into their NCAA first-round matchup they’d won 10 straight and 15 of 16. In the Big South, they finished 15-3 and tied for the regular season title, also a program first.

Then they marched through the Big South Tournament in early March to win their first championship in one of the most lopsided title games in conference history. They won the first-ever NCAA Division I Tournament game in Longwood history on Thursday, when they defeated fellow 16 seed Mount St. Mary’s in one of the tournament’s inaugural “First Four” games.

When it was over there were no regrets.

“We felt like we pushed them more than they expected,” Tillett said. “Just really excited for our program and the direction we’re headed.”