The appreciation of this season for the Rider University women’s basketball team is multiplied by every dribble once taken by the Broncs head and associate coaches on the court of their alma mater.
And the accomplishment of reaching the postseason for the first time in the program’s history is magnified for the two coaches from South Jersey with every scouting report, recruiting trip and practice plan they prepared over the last decade.
For Broncs’ head coach Lynn Donovan-Milligan from Eastern High School and associate coach Pam Durkin of Sterling, they rightfully deserve to enjoy “the moment” of reaching Friday night’s WNIT game at Virginia Tech.
After all, they both devoted so much sweat equity as players and now coaches. The Broncs earned an automatic bid to the WNIT after reaching the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament title game against league power Quinnipiac.
“One of our main goals when Pam and I took over the program ten years ago was to hang a banner in the gym,” said Milligan, who is in her 10th season as the head coach in Lawrenceville. “There were no women’s basketball banners hanging in our gym. With the seniors, when they were freshman, it was something we talked about a lot, to be that group that hung the banner.
“And there will be a banner in the gym that says WNIT and we wanted it to say more, but we came up short in the championship game. But the bottom line is this group hung a banner in the gym and that was their goal when they stepped on campus four years ago and they achieved it.
“That’s something very special and it’s something they feel very good about. They accomplished something pretty big, it was never done, and we want them to feel good about it.
“It was a historic season and it was led by them and I want them to have that memory every time they come back in the gym.”
The Broncs (24-8) face the Hokies (17-13) of the Atlantic Coast Conference at 7 p.m. in Blacksburg in the opening round of the 20th annual tournament.
“Having worn the same uniform as these kids, it’s special to see their hard work come to fruition, and with Lynn and I, to bring that first banner to the university,” Durkin said.
Milligan and Durkin are sharing this accomplishment with some South Jersey players.
The MAAC Player of the Year, Robin Perkins, is from Willingboro and Julia Dugan, who was one rebound short of tying a conference record with 20 boards in a playoff game, is from Ocean City.
Also, Asyana’e Muwwakkil, a junior from Pemberton, and Johnnah Johnson, a redshirt sophomore from Blackwood who played at the Hun School, are reserves for the Broncs.
“We have a really great group of seniors, led by Julia,” Milligan said. “This year, we set our sights on some lofty goals that people outside of our little circle didn’t think we were capable of, we were picked preseason 10th and we finished second.
“So I think we passed other people’s expectations, but we felt capable of this if we recommitted and if we bought into our philosophy of getting better every day and if we followed our leaders and we did that.
“Our seniors really stepped up and had career years and we have some really great underclassmen and some really great freshmen who just kind of followed and so it was a really fun mix.”
And the Broncs certainly enjoyed great coaching.
Milligan, who was an assistant coach at Saint Joseph's and Drexel, led the Broncs to its most successful season in a decade as a senior in 1992 when Rider finished 9-3 in the East Coast Conference.
Also a softball star at Rider, Milligan is a member of Eastern High School's Athletic Hall of Fame. Her twin sister, Aileen, played basketball at Loyola College in Maryland.
Durkin returned to her alma mater in 2007 when Milligan was named the head coach.
The Al Carino Basketball Club of South Jersey Hall of Fame member also was an assistant at Drexel when current Washington Township High School athletic director, Kevin Murphy, was the head coach.
As a player at Rider, Durkin finished seventh in the nation with 11.7 rebounds a game as a senior in 1997.
Durkin, a member of the Sterling High School Athletic Hall of Fame, led the Silver Knights to a pair of state championships.
“We’re only a half hour away from South Jersey,” Durkin said. “I went down to the South Jersey Invitational and saw a handful of games and it’s always good to see familiar faces. And there are a lot of people following us this year, which is great.
“I had Lisa Angelotti (Gedaka, the head coach of Gloucester Catholic) after her game come running over to me and was like ‘you guys are having such a great year, congratulations,’ so people are paying attention, which is great.”
Milligan was named the MAAC Coach of the Year after the 24 wins this season was the Broncs most since 26 in the 1981-82 season. She was the first coach in the program’s history to win the award from the league.
Also, Perkins, who played in high school at Trenton Catholic, was the first player in program history to earn the MAAC Player of the Year honor.
In early January, Perkins sank a free throw at Siena for her 1,000th point. She averaged 15.5 points this season.
“Robin had her best year ever,” said Milligan, “but unfortunately she got hurt and missed the last six games. It says something about her to miss the last six games and to be named Player of the Year. And it says something about our team when Robin went down.”
Perkins will not play in the WNIT.
Rider lost 81-73 to top-seeded Quinnipiac in the tournament championship game. Duggan scored 23 points in the loss to the Bobcats, who are coached by former Delran standout Trish (Sacca) Fabbri.
In the semifinals, Duggan scored 15 points and also grabbed 20 rebounds, which was the second-most in a MAAC Tournament history.
Ironically, Trish (Sacca) Fabbri recorded 19 rebounds in a game as a player for Fairfield,
Duggan was named to the all-tourney team as she averaged 19 points and 14.7 rebounds in three games.
“It was a South Jersey twist with two South Jersey coaches and Trish has the girl from Timber Creek (Brittany Martin), so it was nice to have that South Jersey feel to it,” Milligan said.
This season will always be remembered fondly by all the South Jersey Broncs, the thing is about playing in March is you want to keep playing, so it is difficult to fully embrace “the moment.”
“It's tough sometimes to enjoy it when you are in the moment and so I don’t know if I have even been able to process some of the great stuff we have been able to do this year,” Durkin said.
“Recruiting is one of my primary responsibilities and we are still trying to get players for this year and are trying to get players for next year, so your mind is always on the next thing, so sometimes it’s hard to be in the moment and enjoy it.
“I hope they realize how close they were to the Big Dance. I don’t know if the players have really processed what they have done, that they are the first Rider team to go to the postseason.”
Second-round games of the WNIT are scheduled for March 18-21. The championship game is April 2. But up first are the Hokies on the road.
“We like playing on the road, but the only downfall playing at Virginia Tech is a lot of our fans won’t be able to come and they have been very supportive,” Milligan said.
“As I told our team, we have to win a game so our fans can see us play again. We could be a little bit closer to home, so I think that is incentive to them too as they do want to play in front of everyone who supported them.
“But, again, we have to beat an ACC team on their home floor in order to do that.”
When this historic season is over, then the two South Jersey coaches can reflect on every dribble they once took as well as every practice plan they prepared and fully appreciate their accomplishment.
And where they want to still go.
“It was hard to get here, it is going to be even harder to stay here,” Durkin said. “I think the returners will be able to talk to the younger kids of what they have to do, but I’m hoping the players are enjoying it as well.”