Richmond opens with emotional win

Joe Doyle, a northern New Jersey resident, never missed his sister Ginny's basketball games -- not the games she played for the University of Richmond Spiders from 1990-92, nor the games she coached for 15 seasons as a beloved and respected assistant for the women's team.

So for Joe to return to the Robins Center on Friday night for the Spiders' home opener, six months after Ginny and women's director of basketball operations Natalie Lewis died in a tragic hot air balloon crash, was both fitting and hard.

"It was very emotional," Joe said afterward. "It was difficult to see [their photos] in this venue, at the first game of the season, without them being here. It's tough and devastating. Every day, we think of Natalie and Ginny, from the minute we wake up until the minute we close our eyes. And it doesn't get better."

That bittersweet reality was evident from the first moments of the opening night for the Richmond women's basketball team. While the Spiders maintained a double-digit lead over Providence for most of the game, winning 75-59, the night was emotional for the team, coaching staff and crowd.

Before the game, coach Michael Shafer, players, staff, visitors and even opposing staff wore red T-shirts with a blue-and-red ribbon on the front with a G and an N inscribed inside. The back of the T-shirts read "In memory of Ginny Doyle and Natalie Lewis," with a spider emblem just below and the words "One Richmond." The T-shirts were sold in the concourse and several fans purchased one, wearing it atop their outfits during the game.

The men's team, which played later Friday, also donned the shirts during their warm-ups. The Providence staff showed their support not only by wearing sticker ribbons with the same emblem but also by wearing red in a show of respect for Richmond and the two beloved staff members the Spiders lost in the spring.

Before the game, a moment of silence was held for Ginny and Natalie. Several hundred fans stood, some with heads bowed, others looking toward the bench (the team wasn't on the court during the moment of silence).

Wearing white jerseys and shorts, and the G and N ribbon sewn onto their uniforms, the Spiders emerged strong from the opening tip, stealing the ball on the game's first play. With nine minutes left in the first half, Richmond had amassed a double-digit lead. Richmond's pre-game huddle ended with the team yelling the word "family," a fitting proclamation as they played as a unit throughout the night, with five players scoring in double digits.

At halftime, the crowd of 561 fans grew silent as Lewis' parents and Doyle's mother and two brothers walked onto the court. University of Richmond chaplain Craig Kocher, athletic director Keith Gill and University president Edward Ayers stood next to them and presented them with gift bags. Next, on the Robins Center video screens, a slideshow of photos of Doyle and Lewis began. The Goo Goo Dolls song "Iris" played, their words, "I just want you to know who I am" echoing as photos flashed on the screen: Doyle, who set an NCAA record as a Richland senior with 66 consecutive free throws, coaching the team from the sidelines; Lewis, grinning alongside her Richmond swimming teammates (she was a four-year letter-winner in swimming); Doyle, posing happily with her mother and brothers; Lewis, smiling with her fiancée, brother, sister and parents.

Doyle's and Lewis' family members shed tears and held onto one another as the photos passed, Lewis' father holding his wife's hand and putting his arm around Doyle's mother. Throughout the crowd, fans held tissues and wiped noses. No one spoke after the slideshow; instead, a small applause began and grew to a louder show of support, the entire crowd standing as the family members walked off of the court.

"It's just a reminder to be the type of person that makes you feel better," Trish Lewis, Natalie's mother, said afterward. "I think they brought that to the game. They believed in you."

A trust and devotion that was reciprocated by the community around them. "Ginny loved being a Spider probably more than any other Spider around," Gill said during the game's second half. "Most of us learned a lot of lessons from Ginny. And Natalie was just a phenomenal spirit with an infectious smile -- her presence lit up a room."

On the court, the Spiders dominated the second half, playing aggressively and never letting the Friars bridge the scoring gap too closely.

"It was different because Ginny and Natalie weren't here -- Natalie always has so much energy, and coach Doyle being so intense with everything she had to say," redshirt senior forward Genevieve Okoro, who scored 11 points and grabbed six rebounds, said afterward. "They've always been so passionate about everything they do, so we know they would've wanted us to do the same. Coach Shafer had some words to say before we started to address everything we were feeling, but at the end of the day it's about how we're going to beat Providence. This season has a bigger purpose -- because they're not here anymore, but we still are here to beat our opponents and win an A-10 championship."

With tonight's win, the Spiders are one step closer to those goals. They'll face Georgetown on Sunday. And even if Doyle and Lewis aren't physically present, their legacy remains.

"I could feel Ginny and Natalie in the Robins Center tonight," Joe Doyle said. "I could hear them screaming and cheering."