As the final shot went up and came down, the buzzer sounded and confetti rained on the court. The FDU women’s basketball team had won its first-ever National Championship.
The team made FDU history by defeating the Whitman College Missionaries, 80-72, in Stevens Point, Wis. Along with the Division III title, the Devils celebrated a perfect 33-0 season.
At a press conference following the championship game, Coach Marc Mitchell joked, “I’m just mad that we didn’t have 34 games to tie DePauw’s record.”
The National Championship was a long time coming for the unbeaten squad, which ran away with the Freedom Conference this year and got to host eight games of the NCAA Tournament. The Devils played in four of those games.
“Hosting the tournament was a big part of it; we had so much support from the fans coming to our games,” said center Melissa DeHaas. “I have never seen that many people at our games before and that’s something I will always remember.”
Some fans, including Campus Provost Peter Woolley, even followed the team to Wisconsin.
“Having 100 cheering students, staff, faculty and parents made a huge difference. We were the only team with a significant student presence and each game sounded and felt like a home game,” Woolley said. “You had to admire the commitment of so many people who would ride a bus for 18 hours to the contest, knowing they’d have another 18 to get back.”
Senior Beau Collins said the bus ride was long, but fun, since everyone was excited.
“I didn’t want to miss what I thought would be a great experience to see your team play in the NCAA Final Four and possibly remain undefeated,” Collins said of his decision to go on the trip.
In Wisconsin, the FDU fans were “loud, enthusiastic and good-natured,” Woolley said. He added, “Special credit goes to those who took off their shirts and painted their chests, as well as those who planted electrified devils horns in their cheese-heads.”
The celebration continued last week, during a campus pep rally for the champions. Richard Codey, former governor of New Jersey and an alumnus of FDU, was on hand to congratulate the team. According to the FDU website, Codey led the crowd in chants of “FDU! FDU! FDU!”
For DeHaas, a senior, going out on top is really special.
“I came in as a freshman not expecting to even be close to where we are now, and to know that I [had] a part in changing the program around from losing seasons to an undefeated national title is amazing,” she said. “There is nothing better than being a champion.”
A number of factors led to the success of the Devils this season, including great coaching by Mitchell and his staff, great play from his team and, of course, talent.
During the post-championship press conference, Mitchell said, “Today you kind of saw exactly what FDU Devils basketball is all about. It’s all about mental toughness, resiliency and just a bunch of great young ladies.”
Mitchell, who has been named the 2014 Schelde Sports/Women’s DIII News Coach of the Year, has almost single-handedly turned this women’s basketball program around.
A couple of years ago, Mitchell got the twin tandem of Kyra and Kara Dayon to join the Devils and, right from the start, they helped elevate the program. Kyra Dayon has been honored as back-to-back Freedom Conference Player of the Year and led the team in points per game this season with 14. She also stepped it up a notch in the post-season as she averaged 15 points per game in the NCAA Tournament and scored the first 10 points for her team in the championship game.
Kyra Dayon received Tournament MVP honors, and she and senior point guard Jalessa Lewis were named to the All-Tournament Team, according to fdudevils.com.
One of the big reasons the Devils went all the way this year was because of the play of Shalette Brown, the sophomore forward from Somerset, N.J.
A transfer student from Montclair State, Brown averaged 14 points and 12 rebounds in the NCAA Tournament.
Dayon and Brown were two big factors this season, but they couldn’t do it alone; as the team always says in the huddle, “as one.”
The women played well together and came through for each other.
“It still doesn’t even feel real, and I know we are all really proud of each other for coming together and completing such an amazing goal,” said Rachel Groom, sophomore center. “We knew we might not ever get this opportunity again and that was the mindset going in. We all really worked as a team.”
The question now is, can they do it again? Groom thinks they have a chance.
“We need to replace our seniors because we couldn’t have made it to Wisconsin without them, but I do think if we can bring in some new players and work hard enough, we can repeat,” she said.
This season was the greatest season in the history of Fairleigh Dickinson University’s athletic program. National champions with a 33-0 record; it can’t get any better.
“It’s so surreal to say that we are national champions,” Groom said. “I still can’t wrap my head around it.”
The Pillar’s Megan Heintz and Lucila Sparkes contributed to this article.