By Jeremy Stafford - firstname.lastname@example.org
WINCHESTER -- It was senior night at Shingleton Gymnasium, the four marker-drenched posters taped along the gym's wall were proof enough of that.
But at Shenandoah University, at least in the four years since women's coach Michelle Guyant-Holloway has taken over, senior night takes on a mystique which stretches beyond smiles and balloons and gift bags and photos with families.
Senior night is about winning basketball games, and the women have never lost a game on senior night under Guyant-Holloway.
With a much-needed 67-55 win over USA South rival Averett on Saturday, Shenandoah can boast of its streak for at least another year.
But Guyant-Holloway admitted that as Katherine Flint and Alexis Hargbol, SU's lone seniors, both of whom have scored more than 1,000 career points, took center court to say goodbye to a gym full of fans, there was something of a sadness to go along with an otherwise happy occasion.
"It's one of those bitter-sweet things," Guyant-Holloway said, "that we've been here for four years together and we really grew a lot, and those two have just been such a good combination.
"And the things that they accomplished individually would not have happened if only one of them would have been here."
But on Saturday it was a combination of a different sort which contributed to Shenandoah's (13-8, 9-6 USA South) win. With every conference foe well aware of the Flint-to-Hargbol combination, tempered by a Hargbol-back-out-to-Flint combination, it may have come as a surprise to Averett (13-8, 9-6 USA South) that a similar tactic has recently blossomed between sophomore Mandy Johnston and junior Stephanie Holton. Because the two have alternated starting roles with each other since Shenandoah's loss to Averett on Jan. 17, they've had only a few opportunities to flaunt their cohesion.
Saturday was the first time both started together, and Johnston flourished, scoring a game-high 18 points, her second highest total of the season.
"We had played them earlier in the season and they came out and played us tough and beat us," Johnston said of the Cougars, who owned the third-best record in the USA South until Saturday. "Everyone came in and just kinda had a little chip on their shoulder and wanted to come out and win."
Though Holton scored only two points, Guyant-Holloway said the junior's knack for attacking the basket in SU's half-court offense gave Johnston open opportunities from 3-point range. Johnston hit four 3-pointers, the most important of which came with 4:57 left in the game, after Averett had cut an eight-point defect to two, and Shenandoah hadn't scored a field goal for almost two minutes.
"Steph and Mandy shoot like offensive-minded people," Flint said. "[Johnston's] shot really helps our team, basically."
As timely as Johnston's long-range score was, though, it was SU's defense which seemed most punctual. Shenandoah held Averett scoreless through the opening seven minutes, and allowed only one field goal through the final 5:14.
To be fair, though, Shenandoah's only points through the first 7:23 came off free throws, and so, for the second consecutive game, Guyant-Holloway went to her bench early and often. Shenandoah's bench outscored Averett's bench 28-8. Sierra Edwards scored 16 points for Shenandoah, but was the only Hornet other than Johnston to score in double digits.
Flint scored seven points and dished five assists in her regular season home-finale, while Hargbol scored 7 points and nabbed 11 rebounds.
The win puts Shenandoah and Averett in a tie for fourth in the USA South, half a game behind third-place Methodist, who hosts SU on Friday. Should Shenandoah hold on to at least the fourth spot in the conference, they will host a USA South quarterfinal game.
Which is why that bitter-sweet moment Guyant-Holloway shared with Flint and Hargbol on senior night, thankfully for her, may not be the final time she coaches them under the lights at Shingleton Gym.
"They're great people, and they're gonna do well with what they're gonna do after basketball," the coach said of her seniors. "But hopefully we'll still have another home game."