Van Pelt Leads SUNY New Paltz Women’s Basketball to Second-Straight SUNYAC Title

By: Monica D’Ippolito, Athletic Communications Director

New Paltz, NY – Maddie Van Pelt ended the fall unsatisfied with how her volleyball career ended at the State University of New York at New Paltz. Coming off conference championships in both volleyball and basketball, her final season as a Hawk was all about making back-to-back runs in both sports. Volleyball season didn’t end the way she wanted, and from that moment the final ball hit the ground last October, she made sure basketball season wasn’t going to end the same way.

Four months later with a State University of New York Athletic Conference (SUNYAC) Championship on the line Saturday in the Hawk Center, Van Pelt carried her team past No. 2 seed SUNY Cortland, totaling a career-high 25 points and 13 rebounds to help clinch at 63-53 victory, and claim another championship trophy.

“Truthfully I think it was the tough loss in volleyball,” said Van Pelt of her break-out senior season. “Not regret, but the missed opportunities and I think this season, I’ve talked to coach about it, but I think it helped me become a better basketball player. What happened in volleyball just fueled me to be better… I just felt like my team was behind me the whole game. Everyone kept telling me, ‘Maddie take it, no one can guard you.’ That just fueled my confidence and that passes out to all of them. It was just a great game.”

With the victory, Van Pelt and fellow seniors Philesha Teape, Marion Dietz and Paige Niemeyer became the first players to ever hoist three SUNYAC Championships in program history, as the quartet won their first during their freshman season. They add to their already decorated resume as the winningest players in program history, now with 86 career victories. One more win would also match last season’s win total, which was the most in single season history.

“Coming in as a naive freshman I didn’t think I’d see all this and be a part of something this special,” said Van Pelt who was also named tournament MVP. “My last year especially, with these three [Niemeyer, Dietz and Teape] and have an amazing coach sitting right here it has just been a blessing, especially to keep going forward. We’re not done yet.”

The Hawks had to overcome adversity before the tip-off even occurred Saturday, as they were without starting guard Olivia Badura who was unable to go just minutes before the start of the game due to illness. Maddie Gillis earned the start for Badura, and she and fellow freshman Cassidy Deaver stepped up to play extended minutes and both were vital in the win.

“Thinking about what we planned to do as far as who we thought would play today, we really thought we’d ride Maddie Gillis and play her a lot of minutes, which we did but it was with the thought of Olivia also will be playing, 34, 35, 36 minutes,” said SUNY New Paltz coach Jamie Seward. “When we found out 15 minutes before the game that she was a no go, we were like, ok, that changes things significantly.”

SUNY New Paltz wasn’t rattled by the change in lineup and jumped out to a 21-8 first quarter advantage with Van Pelt leading the way. The senior scored the team’s first five points within the first two minutes, knocking down a 3-pointer and swishing her signature turn-around jumper in the paint. She entered the second quarter with nine points on 4-for-5 shooting from the field. Dietz also helped with the early cushion, as she stayed aggressive attacking the hoop, earning consecutive and-1 opportunities to stretch the Hawks run.

Cortland then took a big hit with two minutes left in the first period, as starting guard Shannon McGuire went down with an apparent knee injury. The junior never re-entered the game for the Red Dragons, and it took the visitors a bit to adjust without one of its leaders on the floor.

“I just think at the start of the game New Paltz came out ready to go, fired up, ready to hit a bunch of shots, and then our starting point guard goes down and I think we just had a moment to get over that hump,” said Cortland coach Jacey Brooks. “We got down big, obviously… down 13 at the end of the first, but we continued to fight. We actually brought it down closer to two and you know, if we didn’t have that start you never know. But, I’m just extremely proud of the girls to continuing to fight in that second and third quarter after getting down big in that first and being able to get so close. We just couldn’t put it away in the fourth.”

After shooting 1-for-11 from 3-point range and making 3-for-16 overall in the first quarter, the Red Dragons climbed back in and made more than 50 percent from the field in the following 10 minutes to cut into the deficit, getting within eight at the half.

“I definitely think they were shots we wanted to take,” said Cortland freshman forward Nyia Longford. “Some of them were open. I missed a lot of open shots in the first, but we have to take them if they are there. They just didn’t fall our way.”

Gillis helped sustain the lead for the Hawks, as the freshman caught fire to start the second. She took her defender one-on-one, crossed her over, spun and finished with her left on a floater in the paint to get the stretch started. Next time down the floor, Gillis again drove to the lane, spun and finished with another shot in the paint, and then capped off the surge with a 3-pointer to get SUNY New Paltz’s advantage back to 15.

The Hawks went on a mini-drought, however, during a three-minute span midway through the quarter, missing five-straight, which allowed Cortland to get within nine following a bucket by Sarah Tully. Van Pelt broke the scoreless run and Lexi Van Vorst subbed in and added on with a driving layup to push the lead back to double-figures. But, the slight shooting slump lingered and SUNY New Paltz missed its last five shots to end the half. The Red Dragons took advantage in transition off the misses and got points from Maggie Malone to trim the score, 33-25 at the half.

The Red Dragons built off their momentum to end the half entering the third. Gillis got the quarter started by swishing another trey, but both teams went scoreless for the next two minutes until Longford started gaining the hot hand for Cortland. The freshman forward brought the deficit back down to eight following a made shot from the perimeter. A few plays later she took advantage of a block by teammate Joka Oyefeso and connected on a floater in the lane. She then went right at Teape two possessions later, getting her shot to go and earning the foul, while putting Teape in foul trouble early in the third.

After Longford made the back end of the and-1, she cut the score to 36-33 with about five and a half minutes remaining in the period. Niemeyer answered by getting to the hoop and earning a trip to the charity stripe, making 1-of-2, but the Red Dragons continued to get closer to the lead. With the shot clock expiring, Sarah Tully worked her way inside and forced another SUNY New Paltz foul and after hitting both, she brought the difference down to just two with four minutes to go.

Van Pelt and Cortland’s Beth Bonin traded trips at the foul line to keep the difference at a basket. Van Pelt answered immediately down the floor to fatten the cushion, but the Red Dragons continued getting free throws from the line. Niemeyer suffered her third and fourth fouls on back-to-back plays, forcing her to sit and Cortland crept back in to end the third. Bonin knocked down one of her two made field goals from behind the arc with 30 seconds left in the period to cut the game to one at 44-43. But despite creeping back in, the Red Dragons couldn’t put away the go-ahead bucket to jump out in front. Van Pelt made sure to re-up the advantage heading into the fourth.

The game remained at 44-43 for about three minutes of the fourth quarter until none other than Van Pelt broke the scoreless run with a free throw. She then hit arguably the biggest 3-pointer of the game with about six minutes to go to get the advantage to six for her team. Teape suffered her fourth foul as well, which put SUNY New Paltz at a disadvantage inside, which Longford and the Red Dragons took advantage, coming up with four offensive rebounds in the last half of the quarter. The shots weren’t falling though, despite the second-chance opportunities and Van Pelt continued to grind on the offensive end. Out of the media timeout with four minutes left, the Hawks held a 49-45 advantage. Their defense stayed sharp and forced two straight air balls on long jumpers by Cortland. Van Pelt extended the lead, finishing on a pass from Niemeyer to make the score, 51-45 with less than four minutes to play.

“We got off to a nice start. We struggled scoring in the middle portion of the game, almost gave up the lead but never did and made some plays, and made some stops,” Seward said. “Maddie Van Pelt it seemed like she made a play every time getting us a basket and Marion did an amazing job guarding Beth Bonin, and just timely plays. I just feel like everybody made a play when we needed to. Somebody stepped up and in that kind of game that’s what it takes. You need different people to do different things and we had different people step up and make those plays when we needed them.”

Cortland cut the deficit to four once again after Oyefeso got her hands on a steal and finished on the other end on an assist from Bonin. SUNY New Paltz held the Red Dragons without a basket for the next three minutes and halted any type of comeback. Cortland missed four straight shots in the stretch and Dietz helped extend the Hawks cushion after getting fouled with the Red Dragons in the penalty. She earned back-to-back trips to the line to up the lead to seven with about a minute and a half to play, and continued taking advantage by driving through the lane. She ultimately made 7-for-8 from the charity stripe in the last couple minutes to extend the game and wash any Red Dragons hopes of a rally away. Niemeyer and Gillis made sure to add on at the foul line as well and solidified the SUNY New Paltz’s second-straight championship.

“We talked about it every game is be locked in every play,” Dietz said. “I felt like we really did lock in on every play. We had some mistakes, but I knew that everyone had my back and I would have everyone else’s back and that was the best feeling, knowing that they were coming down our throats on their little run and just knowing that we were still in control even though we didn’t look like we were.”

Van Pelt was the catalyst from start to finish, recording her fourth double-double of the season, while also adding two steals in 36 minutes. Gillis followed offensively with 12 points and nine rebounds, while Dietz and Niemeyer each added 11 points and six boards. Niemeyer finished with a game- and career-high in assists with eight, while Deaver played a career-high 37 minutes on the night. The freshman added two points, three rebounds and a steal on the stat sheet, but she was crucial defensively to help on Bonin who finished with her second lowest point total of the season on 2-for-17 shooting from the floor.  

“I kept telling the team during timeouts, ‘This is going to be a long game. You need to buckle in and you just got to stay in the moment,'” Seward said. “Doing that is going to make it seem a little longer, and there was a stretch where Cass maybe got a little bit tired physically and mentally and I gave her a little break and she went right back in. And like I said, played 37 minutes and just did a tremendous job. People stepped up and even a little foul trouble there and we were able to work around that. That’s what a team is.”

SUNY New Paltz ultimately limited Cortland to just 31 percent shooting from the floor with only Longford (13) and Tully (12) scoring in double-figure points, while forcing 14 turnovers in the game. Bonin, who averages 22.2 points per game, finished with eight.

“That’s their defense… they’re all over the place and they did a good job of building a wall against her and making her give up the ball,” Brooks said. “Kudos to them for their aggressive mentality and got us out of what we wanted to do offensively.”

Niemeyer and Dietz were named to the All-Tournament team along with Van Pelt, who with the win also becomes just the third student-athlete at SUNY New Paltz to ever boast four SUNYAC titles (three in basketball and one in volleyball). With the Hawks season extended, she has an opportunity to add to the list. With every complement and praise, the senior blushed and thanked her teammates as she looks forward to earn some more hardware with hopefully a couple weeks left in the season.

“Yeah, I’ve done a lot but I’ve done a lot with my teammates and my coaches,” she said. “I’ve been with these girls the past four years and we’ve done a lot of damage together. They fuel my fire, we fuel each other’s fire and volleyball too, we’ve grown together.”

SUNY New Paltz will wait until Monday to find out where and who they will be matched up with in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, which is set to begin March 7.

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Monica D'Ippolito

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