The best season in women’s basketball history at Bryant University continues for at least another game while the rebounding Rams of the University of Rhode Island hope they get the call to play again.
Bryant tied the program record with its 22nd victory Sunday, a 76-54 triumph over Mount St. Mary’s in the quarterfinals of the Northeast Conference Tournament. The second-seeded Bulldogs improved to 22-8 and will play third-seeded Robert Morris in the semifinals Wednesday night at 7 at the Chace Athletic Center on Bryant’s Smithfield campus. Robert Morris beat Bryant by five points in the 2014 semifinals. They split their series this season, each winning at home by three points.
Bryant won 22 games in 1987-88 and 2003-2004 as a Division II program. The Bulldogs are in Division I now.
This season is remarkable for other reasons. It’s Mary Burke’s 24th as head coach, which makes her the dean of college basketball coaches in Rhode Island and puts her among the longest-serving coaches of any sport at the collegiate level in Rhode Island. Burke was an All-Sate basketball player at Toll Gate High School in Warwick and an All-Big East basketball player at Providence College.
In addition, Bryant can boast the NEC player of the year, junior Breanna Rucker of Cincinnati, and the NEC rookie of the year, freshman Ivory Bailey of Wyomissing, Pa. Rucker was sixth in NEC scoring (16.0), led the league in rebounding average (11.4) and ranked 10th in the nation in rebounding. She set the program record with 21 double-doubles this season, fourth in the nation.
Bailey averaged 11.3 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2 assists per game.
All five starters are averaging at least 10 points per game.
Against Mount St. Mary’s Rucker led all scorers with 27 points. She had eight rebounds. Bailey added 14 points. The blowout came after Bryant had won both regular-season games by just two points each, the first in overtime.
At URI, the Rams are praying their season did not end with their 66-53 loss to Duquesne Friday in the quarterfinals of the Atlantic-10 Tournament. URI is 17-13 and could land a spot in the WNIT or the Women’s Basketball Invitational.
This has been a breakout season for URI’s long-suffering women’s basketball program. The 2015 Rams can boast the best record since the 1996 team’s 21-8 finish and NCAA appearance. Credit for the rebound starts with first-year coach Daynia La-Force. Last spring she took over a program that had suffered through 10 consecutive losing seasons and had posted a decade-record of 75-217. Only three years ago URI finished 1-28. That’s not a typo. The 2012 Rams managed only one victory in 29 games. The 2014 team improved to 7-23.
La-Force honed her Division I coaching skills during eight seasons at Northeastern. Her Rhody players clearly have bought into her up-tempo style of basketball.
Freshman Charise Wilson of West Babylon, N.Y., is the poster child for these new-look Rams. She is the Atlantic 10 rookie of the year, URI’s third overall and first since Jaime Gray in 1996. Michele Washington earned the honor in 1983.
Wilson was the A-10 rookie of the week six times, a URI record. She averaged 16.3 points, fourth in the league and third among all freshmen in the nation. Kelsey Mitchell of Ohio State (24.5) and Funda Nakkasoglu of Utah State (16.7) were the only freshman scorers ahead of her. Wilson scored in double figures 25 times and scored at least 20 points nine times. She holds the URI freshman scoring record with 455 points.
Wilson also was named to the All-A-10 third team and to the All-Rookie team.
The next step in the revival of women’s basketball at URI will be consistency. The Rams were 8-4 at the end of December but were only 9-9 after the holidays. They went through a win-lose-win-lose cycle in January, snapped that with back-to-back victories in mid-February, followed with two consecutive losses and were win-lose in their last four games. They would like nothing more than a chance to add another win to that string.