ALBANY – There was a collective nervousness. The team as a whole could feel the game slipping. Niagara didn't seem to have an answer for the latest push from Saint Peter's.
Victoria Rampado knew this could be the end of her collegiate career. So she wanted the ball in her hands. Even if it was 20 feet, 9 inches away when she does her best work at the rim.
The senior forward nailed a three-pointer late in the shot clock to quell a Saint Peter's run. Her ability to come up with the clutch play helped the Purple Eagles advance with a 60-48 win in the first round of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference women's basketball tournament in Times Union Center Thursday afternoon.
"I know that she loves to have the ball in her hands, a lot, but especially in the clutch moments when we really need her," Niagara coach Jada Pierce said. "She understood what the shot clock situation was and was not afraid to take the shot.
"When you have a first-team all-league player and you have those moments where you need a basket, that's the person you have to go to and she's ready to step up."
Rampado, who earned first-team All-MAAC honors after leading the league in scoring, finished Thursday's game with 15 points and nine rebounds. She extended her collegiate career, one that has thrown just about everything but the kitchen sink at the education major from Niagara Falls, Ont.
She came to Niagara under then-head coach Kendra Faustin and had an outstanding freshman campaign winning league rookie of the year honors.
Her sophomore season saw her playing time, scoring and rebounding averages increase. She also was part of one of the wackiest stories in Big 4 basketball lore, getting stuck on a bus for 30 hours as the Purple Eagles were caught in a massive snowstorm on their way home from a game in Pittsburgh.
Then, three games into her junior season, as Pierce had just taken over the program, she injured her shoulder and had to make a decision.
"I could play through it, but I knew I had the redshirt option," Rampado said. So she elected surgery. Two of them in fact.
It was an agonizing season, as it is for most players sidelined by injury. But in hindsight, that's the year Rampado thinks she needed to grow into her game. She found an opportunity to study basketball in a different way. That year away from playing added maturity to her game.
"Freshman and sophomore year, I wasn't mature," Rampado said. "I wasn't the player that I knew I could have been. But after my redshirt year, I knew who I’m supposed to be and how good I can be in this league. I think that's how I became more mature is just watching the game. It slowed down."
Back from injury, and sporting a brace, Rampado had a solid junior season, starting all 30 games, notching her 1,000th career point and earning second-team all-league honors. She could have walked away with her degree, but there was no chance that was happening. Not after losing to rival Canisius in overtime in the first round of the MAAC tournament.
"Last year losing to Canisius gave me a lot of motivation because I knew we weren't done yet," Rampado said. "We're trying to chase that ring."
But while chasing that ring, Rampado chased down another legacy. She became the program's all-time leading scorer, passing Eva Cunningham's record of 1,753 points set in the 2004-05 season. Oh, and her 41 points she dropped on Siena in a 73-68 win on Jan. 7 are the second-most points scored in a single game in program history.
"You don't do that by accident," Pierce said. "There's a lot of hard work, a lot of dedication and I think she's so unselfish with her teammates. It's not about her scoring her points. She wants her teammates to be successful as well."
Rampado's maturity takes center stage when talking about the scoring record and her role in Niagara's offense. She's learned to go with the flow of the game, even while battling fiercely in the low post.
"At the beginning of the year, I felt like I would force the matter and now I have the game come to me and get my teammates open," Rampado said. "Because the double team, triple team comes to me so the ball has to be reversed a few times for me to get open."
And there's the scoring record. Which, don't get her wrong, is pretty awesome and humbling. But there's still that MAAC championship ring to chase.
"I knew I was coming close to it," Rampado said. "I mean it's an amazing accomplishment for sure. I'm proud of it. But my aim is to get a MAAC Championship. To win it for our school."
That road continues Saturday when Niagara faces third-seeded Siena in the quarterfinals at noon in Times Union Center.