ALL ON THE FLOOR: BU Women’s Basketball gives everything it has in Patriot League Championship game, but again leaves matchup with Holy Cross empty-handed

By Sam Robb O’Hagan

WORCESTER, Mass. — As all 13 players and seven staff members wearing scarlet and white trudged off the Hart Center floor Sunday, all they left on the court behind them was every last thing they had to give.

When BU head coach Melissa Graves stood at the dais after the 61-55 loss in the Patriot League championship game and reminded reporters that “at the end of the day, we fought and gave everything we had,” it really did feel like that was all there was for her to say. Sports, of course, can be cruel. And they don’t get much crueler than defeat at the doorstep of March Madness against Holy Cross, the very team that upset BU in this very spot last season. But as yet another purple and white party popped off at center court, the Terriers streamed out of the Hart Center not the scattered bunch that consoled each other as they left Case Gym a year ago, but in perfect single file. A group with its collective chin up. 

Eventually, there were tears. As there were last year, but this was not the same. That was a stunning tragedy, as if Holy Cross, in upsetting a historically good and No. 1 seeded BU on its home floor in the title game, had dropped a meteorite onto Case Gym and left nothing but a desolate crater for the Terriers to lay in. This year, No. 3 seeded BU (20-12, 10-8 PL) wasn’t the favorite; it wasn’t the host. The story of this season was not jaw-dropping dominance but sheer will. BU was back here because the Terriers, somewhere amid the many punches they took during this up-and-down season, decided they would not be denied. And then, at approximately 2:05 p.m. on Sunday, the horn sounded and did what BU had refused to do itself — admit that it was over.

“Disappointed with the outcome,” Graves said. “But not disappointed in the effort at all.”

There was Aoibhe Gormley, a freshman guard who walked onto an immensely physical court and tried just about every single thing she could to help BU keep up. She swiped at ball-handlers, launched herself off the hardwood to send back a Crusader inbounds pass the very moment it entered play (she protested with the nearby official that she had actually forced a turnover there), and sprinted around the court in transition moments hunting for steals. All of that, and there was Graves, late in the fourth quarter as BU trailed by multiple possessions, leaning over from the sidelines and urging Gormley to give her anything — everything — she had left.

And Gormley just kept on going. Everyone kept on going. Junior guard Alex Giannaros kept willing herself to the cup or fighting through whatever she needed to fight through to find an open shot on the perimeter. Senior forward Caitin Weimar kept chasing every rebound or setting every screen or posting up on every possession against an opponent intent on beating her up.

“She wanted to win so badly, and she showed that,” Weimar said of Gormley. She could have thrown a dart at BU’s team photo and came away with the exact same analysis.

Officially, BU was wired-to-wired in defeat. It trailed by as much as 17 in the second half and the closest it got from there was six points. The Crusaders’ lead was as high as nine with under a minute to play. And there was — I’ll take the liberty of assuming here — never even a thought on BU’s bench about any kind of white flag.

It was extraordinary, the look on Graves’ face as she urged her team on. This was beyond Xs and Os. This was a desperate coach, leading a desperate team that had dug so deep to get here, who looked like she knew it was slipping away but absolutely refused to allow herself or her players to quit. 

“We’ve been fighting all year,” Giannaros said afterwards. “So you gotta do what you got to do, especially in these big games. You can’t give up. 

“I don’t know,” she continued. “You just gotta keep playing.”

From the very beginning, Graves and her group have taken blow after blow after blow. BU lost five upperclassmen and seven players overall after that devastating loss last year. In all, the Terriers lost 65 percent of their minutes and 63 percent of their points and replaced them with six freshmen and two transfers that had basically never played. Then BU lost one of those freshman, forward SiSi Bentley, to a season-ending injury prior to the season, before losing sophomore forward Anete Adler — one of the transfers — and senior guard Kelsi Mingo — at the end of a breakout season — to season-enders as well.

“When I talk about pride for them, that’s a piece of it, too,” Graves said. “Not only the fight that you guys see (on the court) but the other stuff.”

But then, of course, there is the fight that we see on the court. And that has at times been legitimately remarkable to cover. The Terriers fell below .500 in conference play for the first time in Graves’ three seasons on February 10, then stood up and decided to rattle off a three-game win streak despite allowing 57 offensive rebounds and taking a combined 63 fewer shots than their opponent in those games — two deficiencies almost certainly caused in part by BU’s youth and the injuries to Bentley and Adler. When Mingo went down in a senior day matchup with these very Crusaders two weeks ago, BU proceeded to erase a 21-point first half deficit and win at the last minute anyway. Then, a game later on the final day of the regular season, the Terriers suffered the program’s worst loss since 2016, fell to the 3-seed, then returned to the same court to face the same team in the conference semifinal and held Colgate to one of the worst offensive performances from any Patriot League team in any game this season.

Come on.

And the fight once they were here went beyond Gormley running until her legs fell off or Giannaros shoving her way to the basket against the best defensive team in the conference. Gormley, such a hesitant 3-point shooter that most teams didn’t bother to meet her behind the arc, got so hot from downtown that Bronagh Power-Cassidy — Holy Cross’ best player — twice got caught throwing herself at a Gormley shot-fake from 3-point range and surrendering an easy lane to the basket. BU’s freshman finished with 17 points and made a career-high three 3-pointers. “The thing about Aoibhe,” Graves said, “Is that she is a gamer.” As for Giannaros — she scored 3 points and went 1-for-4 from the field in the first half before catching fire from everywhere in the second to carry the Terriers back into the game. She finished with a tied-game-high 21 points on 8-for-16 shooting and made some not-exactly-simple shots look ridiculously casual.

“Alex put it all on the floor,” Graves said.

What more, truly, could she or anyone else on BU’s side have done? Sure, Weimar, the conference Player of the Year, could have gotten far more involved as a scorer — she finished with just 7 points on 2-of-7 shooting — and yes, the Terriers could have done a better job on Power-Cassidy (21 points), who kills BU every, single, time these two teams face off. Could Graves have shown up with a better game plan for the Crusaders’ star, and with a better counterpunch to opposing coach Marueen Margartiy’s own notorious plan for Weimar? Probably.

But that takeaway feels like major missing-the-forest-for-the-trees type stuff. Graves, in three seasons at BU, has made the championship game in two of them and lost the semifinal in the other. She brought Weimar in as a transfer when she arrived at Case Gym in 2021, she and her staff developed Giannaros into the monster three-level scorer she is today, she recruited Gormley and the other five freshmen that really, really showed up for BU down the stretch when called upon.

“Melissa is just doing an amazing job over there,” Magarity said.

It’s hard, maybe impossible, to find exactly what Graves is doing wrong. But maybe that’s missing the point. Because the lasting legacy of this coach and this team and this season is not whether the decisions made on the chalkboard or the recruiting trail were right or wrong. It was that BU, despite anything and everything else, gave anything and everything it had.

That can be such a difficult idea to hold on to. Cliché, even. I know, the amount of times you’ve heard a coach tell reporters that his or her team fought to the end and that’s all that matters when, quite clearly, that is not all that matters. BU lost. It’s going to sting. Graves and Giannaros sat in the post-game press conference with red and watery eyes and Weimar took the chair between them barely able to move for the better part of six minutes. Graves still admitted that, as a head coach, “you’re going to tear yourself apart for a couple weeks.”

And next season, for the second year running, BU will return here with bad memories. But when the Terriers do step foot in the Hart Center again, what will remain on this floor is not just the memory of the nets being cut down and slung around Crusader necks or the Patriot League trophy being wheeled out and into a purple and white case. What will remain is also the memory of everything Boston University women’s basketball could have possibly put out here.