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Women's basketball's postseason run fueled by perseverance, depth

By Kyle Kandetzki - MANAGING EDITOR After a shocking exit from the CAA tournament in its first game of the weekend against the underdog Northeastern Huskies, the Hofstra women’s basketball team could’ve mailed in the remainder of its postseason.

Exactly seven days after the loss, Hofstra hosted a Women’s National Invitation Tournament game against Harvard. How the Pride came out of the gates versus Harvard would show how well the team put the loss behind them. In just ten minutes, they seemed to have forgotten all about it.

Hofstra led Harvard, 22-6, after one quarter, and 41-19 at halftime. They won easily, 76-50, marking the program’s first WNIT victory since 2010.

The loss in the CAA quarterfinals was far in the rearview mirror at this point, but this group continued to push it even further away. It won again. And again. And now, it’s among the final eight teams in a postseason tournament.

“The sky’s the limit,” said head coach Krista Kilburn-Steveskey. “We’re playing on fun house money right now, and just really riding it and having a great time.”

Kilburn-Steveskey’s team downed the Big East’s Villanova on the road and the ACC’s Virginia at home, both by eight points. Even more impressive is how this team has persevered to get to this point.

Hofstra has been plagued by injuries all season long, and things have only gotten tougher in March. Yet, the Pride keeps winning.

Senior forward Dee Thomas-Palmer has missed the entire season. Junior forward Anjie White missed a month of non-conference play, but has since come back to be a consistent force in the frontcourt. Her play has been even more important considering her backup, senior Sydni Epps, has been out since December.

After a bit of time without too many injury scares, they have reappeared considerably over the past month.

The team’s leading scorer, Kelly Loftus, fell on her arm against James Madison on February 14th. Her replacement in the starting lineup was Asia Jackson, the consistent senior who was the ‘sixth woman’ of sorts for Hofstra all season long.

Jackson’s time as a starter didn’t last long, as she suffered an injury of her own in the following game vs. UNCW. She attempted to play in the next game at Delaware, but logged only six minutes.

Most recently, Hofstra’s All-CAA second team forward Ashunae Durant went down hard in the first round of the WNIT. She hasn’t played since and wasn’t dressed in the team’s matchup against Virginia on Tuesday.

It goes without saying that is a lot to deal with, especially during a postseason tournament. But yet, the team has carried on and seems to be hitting a stride in mid-March. How?

First, getting healthy has helped. Loftus came off the bench in the second and third rounds of the WNIT, providing averages of nine points and 26.5 minutes in those two games. Jackson also played for the first time in just over a month versus Virginia.

But what has been the biggest key are those waiting in the wings behind the players who have gotten hurt.

Hofstra’s starting lineup on Tuesday featured three players who combined for just ten total starts on the season before that game: Olivia Askin, Aleana Leon and Jakelle King-Gilchrist.

Askin, a sophomore guard, provided only 16 minutes over her two starts, but has delivered a necessary role with Leon moving to the three after Durant’s injury.

Speaking of Leon, how consistent she could be offensive as a starter was something of a mystery, but she has left little doubt ever since taking the role. The sophomore has averaged 12.3 points per game in the WNIT, posted a double-double vs. Harvard (15 points and 11 rebounds) and has played over 33 minutes in each of the team’s three WNIT games.

As for King-Gilchrist, her month has been a great story.

Over her first two seasons with the Pride, she started just five times. This season, she occasionally put up double digits in scoring off the bench.

On her senior day, she was slotted in to start, a tradition in place on most campuses so that last-year players see the floor in their final home game. But King-Gilchrist used the game almost like an audition for a starting role. She posted 14 points, including a 4-for-10 day from beyond the arc.

She has started every game since and relished the role, becoming arguably the team’s hottest player. Disregarding a tough 0-for-11 outing in the CAA quarterfinals, her numbers since Feb. 28 prove the impact she’s had: 16.2 points per game, 43% from three-point range and 47% from the field.

Sure, it may not be common for a player to break out in her final collegiate games, but King-Gilchrist has done just that. Thus far, her remarkable March is highlighted by a career-high 22 points at Villanova to will her team to victory.

The continuous theme of backup players providing starter-sized performances might not have been expected, but the team has continued to persist and win. Now, thanks to those who have taken on bigger roles as well as year-long starters White and point guard Darius Faulk, Hofstra is three wins away from a WNIT crown.

They’re clearly having fun doing what they’re doing, too. The feeling in the press conference after their third round win was ecstatic and joyful from Kilburn-Steveskey, lauding her team for their ability to keep winning.

“Energy and effort, that’s what they’ve been bringing,” said Kilburn-Steveskey, pointing at her players, Leon and White, beside her. “You can say whatever you want, it has been these guys believing and moving forward.”

The Pride is back in action in the WNIT quarterfinals against Florida Gulf Coast Monday night. Tune in –– you never know who could be the key player for this team on any given night.

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