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Transy knocking on door of dream season


Madison Kellione and Transylvania’s “journey to joy” has taken them one win away from a national championship.
Photo by Pete Meshanic, d3photography.com

By Gordon Mann

On the door to Transylvania head coach Juli Fulks’ office hang several postcards where all players have written down their dreams. This year, the cards all have one thing in common – they all say the dream is to win a national championship.

On Saturday night, Transylvania took another step toward fulfilling that dream, as the second-ranked Pioneers defeated No. 4 Smith, 67-56, in the 2023 NCAA Division III tournament semifinals.

The Battle of the Pioneers started with an offensive showcase in the first quarter. Transylvania shot 50 percent from the floor and All-Region guard Madison Kellione went 3-for-3 from the field, but the Pioneers from Kentucky trailed the Pioneers from Massachusetts 17-14 at the break. That’s because Morgan Morrison and Katelyn Pickunka 17 points for Smith on 8-for-8 shooting.

The game turned midway through the second period when, trailing 25-20, Transylvania fed the ball to versatile forward Dasia Thornton in the post. She drove to the rim for two and, more importantly, draw the second personal foul on Morrison who was forced to sit with 6:23 left in the half.

That opened the door for Transylvania to take control.

Morrison’s absence allowed Transylvania to focus on Pickunka and forced Smith to find someone else to score. Smith struggled to find shots against the Pioneers’ zone defense, and Transylvania’s offense found a lot more space in the lane with Morrison on the bench. Thornton’s great footwork led to two Transylvania layups, the latter giving the Pioneers a 28-27 lead.

After Jessie Ruffner scored the first basket for Smith by someone other than Morrison and Pickunka, Kellione nailed a three and then scored again off a high screen, putting Transylvania in front 33-29. Emilie Teall’s buzzer-beating jumper from the baseline capped a 16-6 run for the Pioneers and sent Transy into the locker room with a 38-31 lead.

Morrison came back onto the floor to start the second half but not for long. She picked up two more fouls in the first 90 seconds of the half and went back to the bench. Thornton went back to work in the post, leaping high in the air to catch an entry pass and then smoothly scoring on one possession and finishing another with a scrappy put back under the rim. Kellione finished the period with another Transy buzzer-beater that gave her 15 points, and the Pioneers took a 57-42 lead in the fourth quarter.

Facing elimination, Smith put Morrison back on the floor and the rest of its offense started to find its footing. Ally Yamada and Jane Loo splashed back-to-back threes that pulled Smith within 57-48 early in the fourth quarter. Late in the quarter, Yamada drilled another three that pulled Smith within 69-64. With the large contingent of Smith fans cheering loudly, Kellione calmly got to the top of the key, got the ball, and splashed a three from a couple steps behind the arc. Transylvania was back in front by eight with two minutes left, and Smith did not score another field goal.

Kellione finished with 19 points on 8-for-11 shooting, eight rebounds, and four assists. Thornton posted a double-double (18 points, 10 rebounds) while drawing seven fouls on Smith players. Laken Ball added 11 points for Transylvania (32-0).

Morrison, who is the Region 2 Player of the Year, tallied 22 points on 10-for-12 shooting but was limited by foul trouble to less than 23 minutes. Pickunka capped her great career with 21 points and 11 rebounds for Smith (29-2).

During the game, Transylvania is striking in how efficient and balanced its offense is. On Saturday night, the Pioneers shot 52 percent (26-for-50) and had 14 assists against eight turnovers. Every time Smith started to build some momentum, Kellione found a way to score, using her speed to blow by defenders and her range to torture them from outside. Thornton has ballet-like footwork in the post while Ball, Sydney Wright, and Kennedi Stacy provide complementary scoring punch.

After the game, the Pioneers are striking in how gracious they are.

When Kellione is asked about how her game-sealing three sucked the life out of the Smith crowd, she winces as if she stepped on someone’s foot.

“I wasn’t really thinking about much at that point. I was open so I just let it fly. But I give all the credit to my teammates. We wouldn’t be where we are today without the great fight in this team.”

When Thornton is asked about her ability to get opposing forwards into foul trouble, she responds with self-deprecation.

“It’s something, I guess, that comes naturally. I’m not as strong and built like everybody else, but that’s something else that I can do. I have the speed, and it’s just unfortunate.”

Maybe it’s easier to be gracious when you’re 59-1 in your last 60 games, but it is also an outgrowth of Fulks’ philosophy as head coach.

Fulk, who had been to the national semifinals herself as a player at Capital, has stressed that her team should find “joy in the journey.” Last year the Pioneers went undefeated until they lost to Trine in the Elite 8. This year the Pioneers are once again unbeaten, entering the national championship game.

Whatever happens in that game, Fulks does not want her team to define the time they’ve spent together just in terms of wins and losses.

“Coming into this year, with the season we had last year, one of the things we were worried about was the huge expectations. So, we talked about it really early on, and we coined that phrase because we didn’t want a loss all of the sudden to define this group. They collectively have been through so much, including all of [COVID],” Fulks explains.

“I just wanted to make sure that, at the end of the day, it wasn’t going to be the wins and losses that determined whether they had a great year.”

When Transylvania returns to the Beck Center for a two-week break before playing in the national championship game, they can take another look at Fulks’ dream door.

“We want them to dream big and check in on those dreams,” Fulks says  “The other part of that is, if we’re going to have really big dreams, we’re going to have to do everything we could to find ways to make those dreams come true.”

No. 2 Transylvania will face No. 1 Christopher Newport (31-0) for the 2023 national championship at 11 am ET at American Airlines Arena in Dallas on Saturday, April 1.


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