Less than two weeks after securing their first Atlantic 10 title, the Rams looked as if they were about to claim their first-ever NCAA Tournament victory on Saturday in Waco, Texas. But a last second shot fell just short, leaving Fordham one point shy of California when the final buzzer sounded.
Redshirt senior Erin Rooney led the Rams in her final collegiate game, scoring 17 points and grabbing ten rebounds in the loss.
Junior Emily Tapio continued her stellar late-season play, registering 15 points, seven assists and six rebounds against the Golden Bears.
Samantha Clark also put forth a fantastic effort for the Rams, netting 15 points on 6-8 shooting, including a perfect 3-3 mark from beyond the arc.
The Rams were lights out from the floor in their first NCAA Tournament game in over 20 years, shooting 51 percent from the floor and 53.8 percent from three-point land
Cal jumped on the board first in the early going, pulling ahead 4-0 on a pair of buckets from Afure Jemerigbe less than a minute in. But the Rams gradually battled back, closing the gap and pulling within three, 10-7, on a Missry triple four and a half minutes into the action.
After Courtney Range hit a three-pointer to put Cal up six, 13-7, the Rams signature defense found its rhythm. Fordham held the Golden Bears without a field goal for just over seven minutes, uncorking a 14-1 run and grabbing a 21-14 lead with just under eight minutes to go in the half. Rooney scored five points to lead a balanced offense attack during that stretch.
Cal finally got one to fall after 7:03 without a bucket, but the Rams answered right back. Mary Nwachukwu nailed two straight jumpers for Fordham, keeping the Rams’ lead at seven, 25-18, with just under four minutes remaining until the intermission.
The Golden Bears rattled off four unanswered to pull within three, 25-22, near the two minute mark, but Clark quickly sank a baseline jumper to bump the Fordham advantage back to five.
Led by four free throws from Brittany Boyd, the Golden Bears scored six of the next seven points to tie the contest at 28, but Tapio sank her third bucket of the game to put Fordham ahead by two, 30-28, at the half.
Rooney paced the Rams with eight points and seven boards in the opening stanza, while Tapio added six points and five rebounds.
After scoring six in the first half, Tapio eclipsed that total in just over three minutes of play in the latter stanza, scoring eight of Fordham first 11 points in the period. Unfortunately for the Rams, the Golden Bears came out just as hot, taking a 43-31 lead near the four minute mark.
Trailing for the first time in nearly 15 minutes, the Rams clawed back to take the lead, 46-45, on a Clark three-ball a few minutes later.
Ahead by one, the Rams’ offense began to slow for the first time since the start of the contest, going over five minutes without a point and allowing Cal to take a three point lead, 49-46.
Just inside the ten minute mark, Clark broke the cold snap for Fordham with another three, tying the game at 49.
Cal scored three in a row over the next 90 seconds to take back the lead, but Rooney soon responded, knocking the deficit down to one with a pair of free throws.
A minute and a half later, Rooney took a pass from Tapio and sank a three from the left wing, putting the Rams back ahead by two, 54-52, with 5:31 on the clock.
Cal scored four in a row over the next minute to pull back in front by a pair, but Rooney shook her defender and knocked down a baseline jumper on the ensuing possession, tying the game.
Following a stop on the defensive end, a Tapio offensive rebound gave the Rams a second chance and an Abigail Corning layup gave the Rams a two-point advantage, 58-56, with under four minutes to go.
Down two, Boyd scored her 17th and 18th points the next time down the floor, causing the scoreboard to read 58-58 when Coach Gaitley called a timeout with 2:32 left on the game clock.
Out of the stoppage, Tapio drew a shooting foul and connected on one of two, putting the Rams up by one, 59-58, with just over two minutes to go.
The Fordham defense forced another big stop, and a Clark second-chance point gave the Rams a three-point advantage with just under 90 ticks left on the clock.
But the next time down, Boyd drew another foul, sinking both of her free throws and pulling her team within one, 61-60, with 1:11 to go.
Fordham failed to score the next time down and the Golden Bears responded with two more free throws, this time from Jemerigbe to take a one point advantage with 31 ticks on the clock.
After a Cal timeout, Rooney came down, slashed through the key and banked one off glass, putting the Rams back ahead by one with 22 seconds remaining. Down one, Boyd brought it right back down the floor for Cal, working her way through the Fordham defense and hitting a jumper from within the paint to put the Golden Bears back up by one.
The Rams called a full timeout after getting the ball across the timeline, but Cal’s defense held tough, stopping the Rams’ last try and securing a 64-63 victory.
The Rams finished their season with a 25-8 mark, tying for the third highest win total in school history.
– Joe DiBari