The Emerson women's basketball team celebrated their Thanksgiving weekend in championship form, winning the Gallaudet Holiday Tournament in Washington D.C., cruising past host Gallaudet University in the title game, 73-55.
Led by tournament MVP Maude Okrah, a senior forward and marketing major, the Lions were able to use a combination of timely scoring and a suffocating defense to surge towards their first championship win since 2007.
"We've played in two tournaments already this year [before Gallaudet], but we haven't been able to get that final win," said sophomore broadcast journalism major Kathy Andrade. "This was so huge for us. We worked so hard and it makes it all worth it."
In the first round, Emerson took the court against a physical Pennsylvania State University-Berks team. The Lions struggled to capitalize on scoring opportunities early. They ended the first half shooting only 36 percent from the floor to Penn State Berks' 52 percent, according to statistics provided by the Emerson Department of Athletics.
After nursing a slim 38-36 lead at halftime, Emerson got the spark they needed from sophomore center Lauren Zaniboni, who exploded off the bench with 17 points and 15 rebounds, propelling the Lions past the Penn State Berks and into the championship game.
"[Zaniboni] is such a physical presence and a highly skilled player," said Head Coach Bill Gould. "We've already played in three tournaments and she has been named to the All-Tournament Team in all of them. That demonstrates not only outstanding play but also consistency, which is very important if we want to win at the highest level."
Gallaudet, which is one of the United States' leading universities for the deaf, presented a unique final challenge for the Lions, especially on their home court, where the Bison had already won three straight to open their season.
"We definitely underestimated them as a team," said Okrah, who scored a combined 32 points in the two games. "We had to fight our way through the whole game, and that really speaks to the talent that they have. That's something that really can't be taken away from them, especially considering their disabilities, and we have so much respect for them as a team."
Despite nine quick points to start the game by Gallaudet's Nukeitra Hayes-the 2007 Capital Athletic Conference Rookie of the Year, according to GallaudetAthletics.com-the Lions were able to regroup and battle back as the game went on, building a solid 41-31 lead by halftime.
That's when Okrah and the Lions' swarming defense took over. After allowing Hayes to score 20 first-half points, the Lions were able to completely shut down Gallaudet's top scorer, limiting her to a mere three points the second half. More importantly, the Lions were able to hold the Gallaudet offense to a paltry 8-for-34 from the field for the remainder of the game.
The Lions also received clutch performances from Zaniboni and Bri Papa, a junior broadcast journalism major, who added a combined 24 points to Emerson's total en route to being named to the All-Tournament Team.
"I thought this weekend, especially the final game, was our best team effort of the season," Gould said. "We don't have a lot of people on the team, so contributions from everyone [are] needed for us to be able to play on back-to-back days at a high level."
Okrah, meanwhile, indicated that the Lions are only beginning to scrape the surface of what they are capable of as a team.
"Honestly, I was speechless," said Okrah of her MVP award. "But I really couldn't have done it without the team. We're finally coming together, and I know it sounds clicheacute;, but it really was an amazing team effort. The team's the MVP."