Sophomore reserve Ashley Morris hurled the basketball straight up, striking the top of the jumbotron at Saint Joseph’s Alumni Memorial Fieldhouse. Regulation time had expired, and the women’s basketball team had just defeated top-seeded George Washington, 59-54, to win the Atlantic Ten Conference Championship for the third time in as many seasons and for the fourth time in the last five years. After losing to the Colonials twice during the regular season, the Owls finally knocked them off. “We just wanted it real bad,” senior center Candice Dupree said. “We knew that it was going to be our third [title] in a row. We had lost to GW twice already in conference play and we didn’t want to make it a third.” The Owls became the first team since Penn State in 1983-86 to win the tournament three consecutive seasons. The Owls also became just the third team in the last 11 years to win without the benefit of the top seed. Most importantly, the win guaranteed the Owls a spot in the NCAA Tournament, which begins March 17. Although the Owls probably had done enough in the season to warrant an at-large bid, coach Dawn Staley had said at her press conferences throughout the duration of the tournament that she did not want to take any chances with the NCAA selection committee. Now, with their Tournament bid set, the Owls only await a seeding announcement. As they have for much of the season, the Owls (24-7) rode the play of their frontcourt pair, Dupree and junior forward Kamesha Hairston. Dupree fought through triple-coverage to score a team-high 25 points. She also grabbed 10 rebounds. Hairston finished the game with 18 points, three assists, two blocks and a steal. Both players were named to the All-Tournament Team and Dupree won the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award three years in a row. The senior averaged 27 points and 8.7 rebounds in the Owls’ three tourney games. “[In Candice], you have a big girl you can go into at any time,” Hairston said. “She can score on anyone. So that’s wonderful. Who wouldn’t want that? She’s our go-to player. We wouldn’t be here without her.” Staley acknowledged that the team will miss Dupree next season but with the NCAA Tournament looming, she said she hasn’t thought about that too much. “We’re going to ride Candice out to the sunset. And then, we’ll worry about next year after this season ends,” Staley said. “We’re going to finish this year out and hopefully take it as far as we can take it.” As expected the game began as a defensive juggernaut. Through the game’s first eight minutes the teams split a total of 16 points for an 8-8 tie. The Colonials’ trap defense forced the Owls to quicken their typically slow-paced offense. GW utilized a slide-zone defensive set, in which several defenders collapsed on Dupree when she touched the ball in the paint. This forced the Owls to take mid-range jumpers, which didn’t always fall. The first half featured three lead changes and four ties. No team pulled ahead by more than four points. The Owls ended the half on top, 25-23, when freshman forward Shenita Landry sank two free throws to send them to the locker room. Six minutes into the second half, junior guard Fatima Maddox sunk a jumper to give the Owls a 32-31 lead, which sparked a 12-4 run. It appeared the Owls were set to pull away. But the Colonials stormed back, courtesy a few Temple turnovers. GW hit four of its next five shots on the way to a 7-0 run, which knotted the score at 43 with nine minutes to play. From that point, both teams went cold. Hairston finally broke the Owls’ drought, hitting a jumper. This proved to be the game’s turning point, as the Owls embarked on an 11-0 run. “I wanted this game,” Hairston said. “I was going to do anything I had to do. It didn’t matter. I wanted this game so bad. I think I wanted it more than they did.” The Colonials wouldn’t score until Kimberly Beck hit a three-point shot with two minutes left. By then, five turnovers and a costly technical foul by Jessica Simmonds had allowed the Owls to take a 54-46 lead. Although the Colonials pulled within 59-55 to finish the game, they never posed a serious threat to the Owls during the final two minutes. Now the NCAA Tournament selection committee poses a threat to the Owls. John Kopp can be reached at

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