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ALBRIGHT: Riley Fitzwater’s senior season proves she deserves an All-Mountain East Conference first-team nod

Concord’s Riley Fitzwater is an All-Mountain East Conference women’s basketball first-team player.

Well, not officially.

At least not yet.

While we won’t know for a few more weeks whether that designation has been realized, it is mostly beside the point. Being selected by the coaches as one of the top players in the league isn’t necessary.

No matter where she falls in the overall postseason accolade list, her reputation has never been more clear. She’s the player capable of utilizing her six-foot-four frame to cause havoc all over the court, as well as leading a team.

Because even if the Gilmer County product doesn’t actually receive the congratulatory text messages from friends and family alongside a probable hearty Twitter congratulations from a certain sports writer, the Mountain Lions sensation has solidly proven she’s among the league’s elite.

It has certainly been the case throughout her “senior” season. (She has one more year of eligibility thanks to an NCAA ruling).

The argument is easy to construct.

Though the Mountain Lions still are learning to live life without the school’s second all-time leading scorer Madison May, Fitzwater’s stepped into the main spotlight without so much as missing a beat. Yeah, she may be the Mountain Lions ninth all-time leading scorer, but without May to draw attention from her, the double teams and help defenders have come, and for the most part have not been a huge success.

She’s shooting 65 percent from the field on a paltry 156 shots, averaging a team-high 19.9 points per game, alongside 12.2 rebounds, and nearly five blocks.

That all includes big performances in big games.

Against Wheeling and probable fellow first-team post player Lily Ritz, she exploded for 21 points, 12 boards and four blocks, all while dealing with foul trouble.

And while Ritz went off for 25 points, it took her 23 shots and only nine makes and a good day at the free throw line to get them. Basically, Fitzwater forgot those four fouls and still found a way to be a menace.

Then during the Lions’ upset of previously undefeated and nationally-ranked Charleston on Saturday, Fitzwater was a monster in the first half and largely hampered the Eagles’ ability to come back after halftime. Not only did she score 13 points on 5-of-5 shooting from the field, but she ended six other UC possessions with defensive rebounds and turned away four more shots via blocks. And even though she only scored once in the second half, her mere presence, as it has always done, altered several shots down the stretch and especially in the fourth quarter. Many UC shots were either a little too hard or a little too soft as the players attempted to get a shot off before Fitzwater was on them or get it off over her outstretched hands.

It was the second time this season she came up big against UC. She helped lead a second-half charge that cut the lead to seven in the fourth quarter in the first meeting.

But being a first-team player isn’t just about showing up in the biggest of moments; it is about being ready to go no matter who you are playing. As it happens, Fitzwater has that ground covered as well.

Take Concord’s 104-93 win over West Virginia State on Wednesday as a good example. In a game where offense was crucial, she never stopped once in being a productive player. Of her 17 shots and five free throws, only three and one missed the mark respectively.

Some may notice there are no Glenville stats on here. It isn’t a mistake, the Lions haven’t played them yet this year. Whatever the outcome of those two games, it doesn’t change the fact of her transformation according to her coach.

“She’s just been much more aggressive, a more dominant rebounder, and better shot blocker. She’s really stepped up to the challenge and been a little too unselfish at times. I just don’t know what more she could do,” Concord head coach Kenny Osborne said in an interview Saturday.

“There’s no doubt Ritz and her are the two top post players in our league. Both are just exceptional.”

Contact Joe Albright at jalbright@newsandsentinel.com.

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