By Chris McManes
WASHINGTON – As the final seconds ticked off her brilliant career Sunday, Catholic University's Emily Grabiak could have held on to the ball. Instead she passed to fellow senior Karlyn Dixon and was joined by classmate Liz Briones for one last on-court celebration.
Grabiak, a 5-foot-7 combo guard, had an outstanding senior year and was named Landmark Conference Player of the Year. She averaged a team-leading 16.8 points and 9.5 rebounds and was No. 1 in assists (126) and steals (85). She posted 14 double-doubles and was recognized as conference Player of the Week four times.
Cardinal Coach Matt Donohue, who was honored as Landmark Coach of the Year, knew Grabiak was capable of playing at that high a level.
"We talked to her [after last season] about her needing to take a step up and elevate her game, and we knew she was ready for it," Donohue said. "She was a fantastic leader as a junior in this program, and she really embraced the challenge of coming in this year and elevating her game.
"She was a seven-and-a-half-point-per-game scorer for her career; she was a five-rebound-per game player, and she doubled those numbers this year. And she elevated her defensive game as well."
The Cards' loss to Moravian College, 66-65 at home in overtime, in the Landmark Conference Tournament semifinals is probably what kept them from a third-straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament. The Cardinals won the past two league championships and earned the program's first NCAA playoff victory in 2013.
Grabiak, a first-team All-Landmark selection as a junior, said the Cardinals embraced the opportunity to play in the ECAC championship, particularly at DuFour Center as the No. 1 seed.
"As much as we didn't win the Landmark and go to NCAAs, this is just as good," she said. "It feels really great."
"We felt we were talented enough to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, but it didn't happen for us for a myriad of reasons," Donohue said. "… When we didn't earn the bid, we talked as a team about playing three teams from three very different conferences – three very good teams in the ECACs – and really going out there and saying something about who we are as a program and how talented we are."
CUA defeated Neumann (15-11, 12-4 in league play), Washington & Jefferson (21-9) and McDaniel (21-7).
"You're talking about three very good programs, and our focus was to go win those games," Donohue said. "There was a championship to be won, and we'll take this experience for our freshmen and sophomores and roll it into next year.
"I thought it was huge Emily and our other captains, Karlyn and Liz, led this team to say, 'let's really embrace this challenge and go win a championship and show these young women how to win in the postseason.' You don't know how to win until you actually do it."
Dixon, Grabiak and Briones are the first Cardinal women's players to appear in the postseason four years in a row and are the winningest class in school history. Their record over that span is 90-24 (.789). During the past two years, they are 49-8 (.860).
Donohue started Briones and Dixon Sunday in place of freshmen Melissa Errico and Michelle Desantis. The seniors – who have battled injuries and illnesses their entire careers – played a combined 29 minutes and had four points, four assists and four steals.
"It was great to be able to do that," Donohue said. "All three seniors played brilliantly throughout the game, and I wanted them on the court together at the very end."
Grabiak was 7 of 13 from the floor in her DuFour Center swan song and added a steal, block and three assists. With her team clinging to a five-point lead, she drove left and kissed a right-handed layup off the glass to give CUA a 65-58 advantage with 3:15 to play. She scored the Cardinals' final six points on a baseline jumper and four straight free throws.
That's a pretty good ending for someone who wasn't even sure she wanted to play college basketball.
"It's been a great four years," Grabiak said. "I can't thank my coaches, my teammates and parents (Thomas and Susan) enough."