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Women's Basketball: Clark Leads the Way as Navy Blasts Army

The Army women’s basketball team boasts one of the most formidable frontcourts in the Patriot League. Madison Hovren was picked as the league’s Preseason Player of the Year after averaging 18.7 points and 10.2 rebounds per game last season. She entered the game against Navy averaging a double-double once again, while senior Aliyah Murray added in ten points and seven rebounds per contest.

On Sunday, though, it was Navy that dominated in the paint. Kaila Clark scored a career-high 21 points and pulled down seven rebounds to lead the Midshipmen (14-3, 4-2 Patriot League) to a convincing 70-44 victory over the visiting Black Knights. Taylor Dunham added 20 points for Navy, who maintained a three-way tie with Lehigh and Bucknell for second place in the conference. Sophomore guard Libby Tacka scored 12 points to lead Army, who fell to 9-8 (2-4).

“We just look for the hot player at the time, and it just happened to be me today,” Clark said of her performance. “Even if I missed the shot, I would cut to the basket, and they would find me for a layup. When Taylor [Dunham] started getting hot in the game, we started looking for Taylor. We always play for the hot kid. Whatever helps the team the most.”

Clark’s magnum opus was but one indicator of Navy’s supremacy underneath the basket. The Midshipmen outscored Army in the paint, 34-18, while holding Hovren to five points on 2-13 shooting from the field. Army had only six assists compared to Navy’s 21, the most spectacular of which was a behind-the-back pass from Hannah Fenske that set up a layup for Clark in the first quarter.

“Fenske and Dunham are playing so well, and now Clark comes back, and she looks like a different player,” said Army head coach Dave Magarity. “She just looks so confident. She’s such a presence inside. They’ve got such a great balance with those kids, and then you add some of those young kids they’ve got like Gatzounas, and Roach is a great defensive stopper. They’ve got a great team.”

Navy head coach Stefanie Pemper suspected that Clark might have caught her opponents off-guard.

“Army’s being defended a little tougher in the league just like we are,” she said. “They know what to take away from us, and we know what to take away from them. What was unusual tonight was Kaila having 21 points. That is not something that they probably game planned for.”

The Black Knights shot only 22% from the field. Their bench shot a combined 1-18, with Morgann Yancey’s second-quarter three-pointer being their only points.

“I was really happy with our defense,” said Pemper. “We felt like we had to do a pretty good job on [Murray] and [Hovren] inside and do a good job with their ball screens.”

A big part of that defense was containing Hovren. While she recognized that defending her was going to be a key to the game, though, Pemper didn’t draw up anything unusual to do so.

“Like any good post, try to keep her from getting deep and try to make her go straight up and make her score over us,” she said. “Try to dig and double down a little and give her things to think about.”

After the game, Magarity was Frank about his star forward’s struggles.

“They did a good job of doubling her every time she touched the ball,” he said. “She’s been struggling this year. She’s not handling the pressure of being the preseason player of the year well. She hasn’t adjusted her game, to be honest with you. People know what she does. If you allow her to do what she does best, she’s really good. She’s a lefty. Every shot she takes is a bank shot almost. She’s got that unorthodox game. When teams start taking away her strengths, it exposes some of her weaknesses.”

Both teams got off to a sloppy start, combining for nine turnovers in the first quarter. The Mids missed their first four shots and turned the ball over twice before finally getting on the board almost three minutes into the game. Clark felt that playing a nationally televised game against their rival in front of a boisterous Alumni Hall crowd might have contributed to the mistakes.

“In the beginning, it was a little jitters,” she said. “You saw a couple of mistakes that wouldn’t probably happen at the beginning of a normal game, but as soon as we calmed down and realized that it was still just basketball, I think everyone started flowing and just playing the game that we know how to play.”

The score was tied at ten after the first quarter, but Navy opened the second quarter with an 11-0 run, with eight of those points coming from Clark. Yancey’s three-pointer with 3:17 remaining in the half finally put Army on the board in the period, and the teams went into the locker room with Navy holding a 25-17 lead.

“We were down eight at halftime, and they hadn’t made a three,” said Magarity. “That’s not a great sign when you’re playing this team.”

The threes started falling in the third quarter, and Navy nearly doubled their halftime score by exploding for 24 points. The fireworks began almost immediately when Fenske hit Navy’s first shot from behind the arc only 11 seconds into the half. She added a second one a minute later. Dunham also made two three-point shots in the quarter, the second of which gave the Midshipmen a 22-point lead, their largest up to that point, with 1:26 remaining in the period.

Army would whittle the lead down to 14 over the next four minutes after Libby Tacka drained a three-point shot with 7:07 remaining. That would be Army’s last field goal of the contest. The Mids scored 17 of the game’s next 19 points, with Sophie Gatzounas’ triple with 2:38 left giving Navy a 29-point lead, their largest of the game. Army converted nothing but free throws the rest of the way.

The result seemed to encapsulate both teams’ respective season trajectories. Army has now lost six of their last nine games, leaving Magarity looking for answers.

“It’s disturbing for us,” he said. “We’re a team that a lot of people had picked high preseason. We had a lot of players back, but sometimes that’s not good. You’ve got some kids that aren’t handling the pressure well. They’re not stepping up and playing the way we need them to play to be successful, but we’ve still got a lot of basketball to play.”

Meanwhile, after being tripped up in their first two league matchups, Navy has won three in a row to regain their early-season form. Pemper hopes it’s a sign that her team is adjusting to how conference opponents will defend them.

“We had those two losses in a row, and now we have some wins,” she said. “We’re just trying to keep getting better with how we’re getting played. American defended us tough. Army defends us a lot like them. Holy Cross forced us into some uncharacteristic turnovers. I’m just glad we found a way to break through that and put some points on the board.”